Can China Duplicate the US Military-Industrial Complex?

An influential article in Foreign Affairs beats the drum for updating the logic of the defense technology economy.
China news, China, news on China, Chinese news, military industry complex, Dwight Eisenhower, US news, Foreign Affairs, Anja Manuel, Kathleen Hicks, Peter Isackson

Beijing, China on 5/1/2005 © Lee Snider Photo Images / Shutterstock

With the 2020 US election approaching, the Republicans, led by President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, appear to have decided that there are only two issues worth pursuing. The first,  which they hope the American public will swallow, would be the visibly diminished cognitive capacity of Democratic nominee Joe Biden that has, they claim, turned him into a Marxist and Bernie Sanders’ poodle.

The second issue is more likely to stir up the jingoistic emotions of the electorate. It consists of portraying China as an evil empire and perpetrator of pandemics. Pompeo has been trotting the globe, raising the rhetorical tone to make sure everyone understands how deserving China is of any punishment Trump may decide to inflict on it in between now and the first week of November.

China certainly merits everyone’s attention, simply because it’s there, it’s imposing, it’s growing in influence and it has already clearly shifted the global geopolitical balance in parallel with America’s ongoing hegemonic decline. It’s a theme that resonates with the working class. From a purely electoral point of view, countering the evident rise of China seems like the most obvious theme for Trump to push. After all, his stance of getting tough with China played a big role in the 2016 election.


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Irrespective of elections, every pundit involved in evaluating geopolitical game plans has been homing in on the faceoff between the US and China. Anja Manuel and Kathleen Hicks, writing for Foreign Affairs, have produced a fascinating piece of tendentious ideological reasoning in an article with a provocative title, “Can China’s Military Win the Tech War?” It has the merit of focusing on what is truly the most crucial point of rivalry between the US and the Middle Kingdom: technological prowess in the coming decades.

Alas, their article reads like an exercise in fuzzy neoliberal logic, adorned with an orgy of Silicon Valley venture capital jargon, imbued with romanticized entrepreneurial idealism. Its trendy vocabulary tells us more about a new culture shared between Wall Street, Silicon Valley and Washington, DC, than it does about the geopolitical theme it purports to clarify. The authors assail the reader with these bold concepts: “innovative startups” “collaborative disruption,” “agile and innovative,” “critical innovation,” “emerging technologies,” a “sense of urgency” linked to “today’s competitive … environment,” and “incentives for innovators.”

China’s rise as a supplier of technology poses a major problem because, in today’s world, technology and defense have become one and the same thing. We learn that “as China’s defense capabilities have grown, some Western policymakers have started to wonder whether the United States needs to adopt its own version of civil-military fusion, embracing a top-down approach to developing cutting-edge technologies with military applications.”

And here is the crux of the problem: “Chinese President Xi Jinping formalized the concept of civil-military fusion as part of the extensive military reforms laid out in his 2016 five-year plan.”

Here is today’s 3D definition:

Civil-military fusion:

The name given to the Chinese version of the seven-decades-old system developed in the US christened by President Dwight Eisenhower in 1961 as the military-industrial complex

Contextual Note

Manuel and Hicks start their discussion in this introductory sentence: “As the Chinese government has set out to harness the growing strength of the Chinese technology sector to bolster its military, policymakers in the United States have reacted with mounting alarm.” Thinkers in the West are now wondering whether the Chinese top-down, authoritarian model of decision-making might not be superior to the point of constituting a model the US needs to emulate. The authors set out to prove the contrary.

The article highlights President Xi Jinping’s Central Commission for Integrated Military and Civilian Development whose “goal is to promote the development of dual-use technology and integrate existing civilian technologies into the arsenal of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).” Manuel and Hicks seem to have missed the most obvious point — that Xi has simply taken the American system and stood it on its head. Since World War II, the US has traditionally followed the pattern of developing military technology, which is then made available to private companies to exploit commercially as civilian technology.

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The article also fails to notice how the Chinese have profited from the American system. The US uses its commercial marketplace to validate the types of civilian technology that prove successful. The Chinese can then either copy or reverse engineer the same technology for their civilian market before adapting it to military use. This means the Chinese are getting the best of both worlds. They let the marketplace in the West filter out the civilian applications that work, sparing themselves the research.

Sensing a possible weakness, the authors, undaunted, turn to the catechism of their neoliberal ideology. It contains an article of faith based on the unfounded (and clearly mistaken) belief that private enterprises will always be paragons of efficiency as opposed to governments that will always function as fountains of inefficiency. “China’s bureaucratic and authoritarian approach to civil-military fusion is likely to waste considerable time and money. By trying to control innovation, Beijing is more likely to delay and even stifle it,” Manuel and Hicks write. We are safe. The liberal economy of the US owns a monopoly on innovation.

The authors conclude that the US should not seek to emulate the Chinese model. They do, however, concede that “Washington does need a strategy to strengthen its national security technology and industrial base.” That sounds like encouragement of government inefficiency, but Silicon Valley jargon comes to the rescue. The US needs a strategy “centered on collaborative disruption that generates the right incentives for innovators, scientists, engineers, venture capitalists, and others,” they add. The following sentence offers more jargon in lieu of logic, but especially wishful thinking. The authors call for “forward-looking changes in the Defense Department and smart investments across government.”

Curiously, Manuel and Hicks seem to recognize the obstacle. They see a “risk not because of China but because of a lack of agility and creativity among U.S. planners and policymakers.” This is the ultimate expression of neoliberal ideology. Entrepreneurs are agile and creative. Government planners and policymakers are useless bureaucrats, a fact they reaffirm with this remark: “The Defense Department’s long lead times and slow decision-making remain significant obstacles to innovation.”

Perhaps even more astonishingly naive is their plea to push the already existing logic of revolving door corruption. As a solution to US inertia, they recommend “more opportunities to hire people directly from industry or research institutions into the senior civilian government or even the military ranks,” as well as wishing to expand “the number of temporary fellowships for private-sector experts to spend a year or two in government.” Those are permanent features of the military-industrial complex that have contributed massively to its corruption.

Historical Note

Insisting that if China wants to catch up, it should emulate the United States, Anja Manuel and Kathleen Hicks offer a potted history of the development of America’s military-industrial complex. They cite the founding of labs in the 1930s to develop supercomputing, the military’s post-war collaboration with Texas Instruments and Fairchild Semiconductor to develop microprocessors and the creation in 1958 of the “Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which helped develop GPS and the Internet.” They then proudly cite the Silicon Valley-based Defense Innovation Unit, founded in 2015, which “has helped innovative startups gain a foothold at the Pentagon.”

The authors recommend little more than the logic that has prevailed for the past 70 years. They maintain that “partnering effectively with the private sector can save taxpayer dollars.” In reality, it means companies will continue to see their R&D funded by taxpayers, with no risk and, of course, the opportunity to reap profits from future business in civilian technology. That translates as no benefit to taxpayers but colossal rewards for shareholders.

Manuel and Hicks insist on the necessity of “collaborative disruption,” which “will require upfront investments and streamlined approaches for getting the best commercial technology into the Department of Defense.” This language is designed to appeal to Silicon Valley venture capitalists. It may also appeal to the same political class that has profited personally and politically from the growth of the military-industrial-financial complex. In other words, it is more of the same, but with updated vocabulary. Whether, as the authors hope, the US can by these means “secure the advantage in defense capabilities on its own terms” over China remains to be seen.

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of The Daily Devil’s Dictionary on Fair Observer.]

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