China's trump card

October 23, 2017
article header image
Read the rest of Prospect’s “The new world of security” supplement

Since the 1990s, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army has focused on the development of asymmetric capabilities that exploit vulnerabilities in the United States’s military and security apparatus. These include so-called “strategic frontier” technologies, including: directed energy weapons systems, hypersonic weapons, Artificial Intelligence (AI), and quantum technologies. China’s intention is to achieve “leapfrog development”: to surpass the US military within critical, emerging technological domains, and in doing so gain a strategic advantage.

China’s military came late to the information technology revolution and has struggled to develop the capabilities necessary for modern, “informatised” warfare. During the First Gulf War, China initially recognised the full extent of its own backwardness relative to the US military—it could not match American advances in network-centric warfare.

As the Chinese military struggled to catch up, the accidental US bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in May 1999 added a strong sense of urgency. Chinese leaders were sceptical that the bombing was in fact accidental, especially considering the sophistication of US military capabilities. In the aftermath of the incident, China’s Central Military Commission (CMC) reportedly convened an emergency meeting during which it decided to “accelerate the development of shashoujian armaments.” The term shashoujian, can be variously translated “trump card” or “assassin’s mace.” The term also alludes to a Chinese folktale in which such a weapon was used for unexpected incapacitation of a stronger enemy through a trick. Jiang Zemin, then Chairman of the CMC, is reported to have said at the time: “What the enemy is most fearful of, this is what we should be developing.” Since then, the military has prioritised its “trump card” weapons systems.

These have included cruise and ballistic missiles, which have enabled “counter-intervention” capabilities—the US calls them “Anti-Access/Area Denial”—that could limit the ability of US forces to operate in proximity to China’s coastline. As well as this, China’s electronic and cyber-warfare capabilities could target critical US battle networks. Chinese non-kinetic and kinetic counterspace capabilities, ranging from directed-energy weapons to the HQ-19 space intercept system, have the capability to threaten the satellites integral to US operations. So far, China’s asymmetric approach seems to have achieved Zemin’s intended objective: the creation of capabilities of which US forces are “most fearful.” The US’s ability to operate in China’s “near seas” is already constrained.

Now the Chinese military has identified a new strategic challenge: the military transformation that could arise from the emergence of new disruptive technologies. As the US embarked on the third offset strategy to advance defence innovation, the Chinese grew concerned once more about the risk of falling behind. Its military is acutely aware of the importance of capitalising on technological trends and it fears the emergence of another “generational gap” between its own capabilities and those of the US.
“China's focus reflects its intention to overcome existing US advantages in a much more disruptive way than in the past”
Xi Jinping, China’s President and Chairman of both the Chinese Communist Party and the CMC, has emphasised the importance of “innovation-driven development” for the defence establishment. Xi called for the military to “keep in step with the direction of the global military revolution, especially military scientific and technological development.”

The aim now is to overtake the US military through “cutting corners” and to gain the decisive advantage by leap frogging the adversary. China is prioritising research and development not only in directed energy and hypersonic weapons, but also in AI and quantum technologies to enhance its future military capabilities. China is also likely to leverage nano-technology and bio-technology for military purposes.

Its work on directed energy weapons includes high-energy lasers and high-power microwaves and railguns—devices that use electromagnetic energy to fire high-speed projectiles. There have been recent reports of advances in Chinese microwave weapons, which could be used as a ship-borne anti-missile system or to reinforce China’s air defence systems. The Chinese defence industry appears to be progressing in its development of railguns and even electromagnetic aircraft launch systems that might be used on future Chinese aircraft carriers. For the Chinese military, such directed energy and electromagnetic technologies could bring about “light warfare” which takes advantage of the speed—as well as cheapness and reusability—of these weapons, to dramatically increase operational tempo.

Chinese advances in hypersonic technology already rival and could even surpass progress made by the US. To date, China conducted seven tests of its hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV), the DF-ZF (designated the Wu-14 by US defence officials) since January 2014, six of which have reportedly been successful. Future hypersonic weapons, capable of achieving speeds greater than Mach 5, could have a dramatic impact on strategic-level deterrence and the existing military balance, including through their ability to overcome ballistic missile defence systems. Potentially, the DF-ZF could be used for delivering both conventional and nuclear weapons.

China’s advances in AI have become a reality. The Chinese leadership intends to pursue a “first-mover advantage” to become the “premier global AI innovation center” by 2030, surpassing the US in the process. China’s military intends to develop and test a range of military applications of AI. This includes plans to employ machine learning, including deep neural networks, to enable rapid processing of data and imagery in support of intelligence analysis, while Chinese advances in swarm intelligence could enable asymmetric assaults against high-value US weapons platforms, such as aircraft carriers. Looking forward, China anticipates a military revolution leading to future “intelligentised” warfare, in which AI will be as integral as information technologies have been to “informatised” warfare.

China intends to lead the coming “second quantum revolution,” and it is betting heavily on the revolutionary potential of quantum technologies. China’s expanding dual-use quantum communications infrastructure will be employed in an attempt to ensure the security of military communications against foreign signals intelligence, perhaps even enabling secure underwater communications. The character of the quantum states used in this kind of technology means that if communications are intercepted, the information they contain is destroyed. It is not clear that such communication could ever be “cracked.” Chinese advances in quantum computing could enable future military applications, including enhancing China’s offensive cyber capabilities through the capacity to defeat most prevalent forms of encryption. In addition, progress in quantum radar, quantum navigation, and quantum sensing could also have uniquely disruptive applications—from quantum radar, which could overcome stealth aircraft and vehicles, to the quantum compass, which might become a successor to GPS and which would be especially useful on submarines. Although there are remaining uncertainties regarding their timeframes and technological trajectories, quantum technologies could become a source of radical disruption in military affairs.

China’s intense focus on defence innovation reflects its intention to overcome existing US advantages in a much more far-reaching and disruptive way than it has in the past. Its military strategic guideline is one of “active defence”—which involves “unity of strategic defence and operational and tactical offense.”

Could China succeed in leap frogging the US in defence innovation? Certainly, the People’s Liberation Army will confront considerable obstacles, but its potential for eventual success cannot be discounted. China’s future advances in these strategic emerging technologies could be enabled by critical structural and systemic advantages, including: long-term national strategic planning; the availability of extensive funding and investment; and robust human capital resources, including the aggressive recruitment of world-class talent. Ultimately, this emergent Chinese innovation-driven strategy could transform the future military balance—the US, and its allies, must take this strategic challenge into account.


How can Britain and its allies confront the military and security threats of the modern age? To answer this question, Prospect commissioned The new world of security, a special report  by leading security experts and analysts.

To find out more about how you can become involved in Prospect’s thought leadership programmes, please contact saskia.abdoh@prospect-magazine.co.uk.

You can also download The new world of security supplement as a fully designed PDF document. To do so, simply enter your email below. You’ll receive your copy completely free—within minutes.

[prosform fields="email,forename,surname" signupcode="Security" countrycode="GB" redirect="the-new-world-of-security-is-yours"]

When you sign up for this free report, you will also join our free Prospect newsletter.

Prospect takes your privacy seriously. We promise never to rent or sell your e-mail address to any third party. You can unsubscribe from the Prospect newsletter at any time.