Don’t Underestimate China’s Military-Civil Fusion Efforts

Beijing’s vision is clear, even if its implementation isn’t complete.

People's Liberation Army soldiers take part in military training at the Pamir Mountains in Kashgar, China, on Jan. 2.
People's Liberation Army soldiers take part in military training at the Pamir Mountains in Kashgar, China, on Jan. 2. STR/AFP via Getty Images

In late January 2021, a Reuters report revealed that China’s BGI Group, the world’s largest genomics company, was collaborating with the Chinese military, likely providing them with access to foreign genetic data for their own research. An investigative piece by Zach Dorfman in December 2020 quoted a former senior CIA official stating that, “It’s not that Tencent or [its founder] Pony Ma are dancing to the tune of what the MSS [Ministry of State Security] says, but if at any point China’s security services need assistance, they are providing it.” Civilian entities across China are actively involved in supporting the military and defense apparatus, although the Chinese leadership claims there is still a long way to go in integrating civilian and military efforts. If these efforts represent an incomplete strategy, then a successful one could be catastrophic for the United States and its allies.

A new report by Elsa Kania and Lorand Laskai, both respected experts in the field, presents their takes on myths and realities associated with China’s military-civil fusion strategy, arguing that people in Washington often misunderstand the concept and should instead focus on how far China is from reaching its desired military-civil fusion goals. The authors make several strong points about the development of military-civil fusion and the institutional roadblocks it faces. However, focusing on the strategy falling short of its goals is misplaced. The real issue here is not how far China is from its goals but its current capabilities and the reasons behind the military-civil fusion program—and how the United States should respond to these plans.

Chinese military and technological capabilities are modernizing rapidly and have outpaced most predictions during the last two decades. For the United States, correctly responding to these efforts begins with a holistic U.S.-government approach that assesses military-civil fusion within the context of China’s broader science and technology aspirations.

This strategy is not a new or Xi Jinping-specific policy but one that has been pursued by Chinese leaders since Mao Zedong. It is undeniably difficult to assess the success of military-civil fusion, or even define what success looks like, thanks to the lack of transparency involved. Yet there has been visible progress as evidenced by the BGI case. Experts like Christian Brose, author of The Kill Chain: Defending America in the Future of High-Tech Warfare, argue that the Chinese military’s warfighting capabilities have improved significantly in the past decade, which may demonstrate relative success in fusing the defense and civilian sectors in support of the military. Defense analyst Richard Bitzinger recently noted that President Xi Jinping’s military-civil fusion efforts are significantly more ambitious than those of his predecessors.

Despite its vast reach, military-civil fusion is only one part of China’s broader ambitions—both economic and military—albeit a significant one. Analysis from China’s National Defense University, among other sources, has linked military-civil fusion to the “realization of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” a key pillar of Xi’s development efforts. Military-civil fusion itself goes beyond the scope of improving the modernization efforts of the Chinese military.

In fact, its related policies encourage a “spin-on” to the military and a “spin-off” to the civilian sector, demonstrating Beijing’s desire to bolster the competitiveness of civilian-side science and technology in addition to the Chinese military’s high-tech capabilities. Because of this, ostensibly civilian-oriented development plans like Made in China 2025, the 13th Five-Year Plan (including a 13th Five-Year Special Plan for Science and Technology Military-Civil Fusion Development), and China’s Innovation-Driven Development Strategy and Prospects are equally critical for assessing China’s technology acquisition apparatus.

On the U.S. side, there are certainly trade-offs to using China’s military-civil fusion as a policy tool. In May 2020, the Trump administration issued a presidential proclamation designed to ban certain Chinese students and researchers from coming to the United States on the basis of their affiliations with military-civil fusion efforts. In response to the May 2020 proclamation, a report from the Center for Security and Emerging Technology noted that it appeared to target only a small number of Chinese universities. These universities in question—likely the “Seven Sons of National Defense” administered directly by the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology—are already on the U.S. Department of Commerce’s entity list for attempting to acquire U.S.-origin items in support of the People’s Liberation Army. The proclamation is estimated to only affect 3,000-5,000 Chinese students and researchers in the United States, which accounts for only about 1 percent of all Chinese students studying in the U.S. and around 20 percent of Chinese students enrolling in U.S.-graduate STEM programs annually.

The proclamation’s decision to narrowly define military-civil fusion as “actions by or at the behest of the PRC [People’s Republic of China] to acquire and divert foreign technologies, specifically critical and emerging technologies, to incorporate into and advance the PRC’s military capabilities” represents an attempt to approach the issue with a scalpel, not a sledgehammer, considering that presidential proclamations are written with the intention of becoming legal documents.

In 2018, Peter Mattis wrote that the majority of laws in democratic countries leave wide-open gray areas where political discretion can play an outsized role in decision-making. Moreover, he notes that investigative resources from the U.S. government will almost always focus more on the truly illegal actions rather than the gray areas. The definition used in the May 2020 proclamation does exactly that. For various parts of the U.S. policymaking space to make actionable policy recommendations on the basis of military-civil fusion, the definitions will likely have to change and shift.

Several U.S. government agencies have deployed their own definitions of military-civil fusion. To name just one prominent example, the 2020 U.S. Defense Department’s Chinese military power report included one of the most comprehensive definitions of military-civil fusion that has come out of the U.S. government. This is fairly standard policy practice—for instance, various U.S. government bodies have different definitions of terrorism, maintaining similar core features but differing on jurisdiction and audience. Military-civil fusion should be no different.

Although some argue that China’s military-civil fusion strategy is merely an attempt to mirror the U.S. system, this is a false equivalency.

Although some argue that China’s military-civil fusion strategy is merely an attempt to mirror the U.S. system, this is a false equivalency. To be sure, the United States looks to draw civilian companies into its military structure, but it does that absent a single-party state and with clear legal barriers in place to protect private enterprises. China has certainly studied the U.S. military-civil framework and written extensively on the successes and failures of efforts through the Pentagon’s Defense Innovation Unit, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, SpaceX, and other entities that connect the military and civilian sectors. However, just because China watches U.S. actions doesn’t mean they seek—or even need—to replicate them. In its attempts to fuse the military and civilian sectors, Chinese leadership has the power to demand information and assistance from companies that have little choice but to agree, and Beijing is increasingly installing Chinese Communist Party cells within ostensibly private firms. These activities are a far cry from U.S. action, and claiming that China is merely copying American practices represents an outdated understanding of China’s capabilities and goals, which will ultimately result in ineffective policy.

Kania and Laskai concluded that U.S. policymakers should take a highly targeted approach to dealing with military-civil fusion that “accounts for the complexities of international cooperation and competition in science, technology, and innovation.” This is sound advice as wielding military-civil fusion in broad or generic ways has the potential to create counterproductive and likely damaging results. Chinese students, scholars, entrepreneurs, and more have made significant contributions to the U.S. economy and society and should be allowed to continue to do so.

But it’s also advice that the U.S. government has largely followed thus far with an approach that is targeted, nuanced, and evidence-based. Understanding of this subject is growing and improving across the U.S. government. Moreover, military-civil fusion is a moving target, meaning that those both inside and outside the government should continue to educate themselves on the strategy’s changing dynamics and evolution. Doing so will allow U.S. policymakers to maintain a better understanding of their desired goals and outcomes in using military-civil fusion as a policy tool.

Emily Weinstein is a research analyst with the Center for Security and Emerging Technology at Georgetown University.

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola