As the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) seeks to become a “world-class military,” its progress in advanced weapons systems continues to provoke intense concern from its neighbors and competitors. The Chinese military and China’s defense industry have been pursuing significant investments in robotics, swarming, and other applications of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML). Thus far, advances in weapons systems described or advertised as “autonomous” (自主) or “intelligentized” (智能化) have built upon existing strengths in the research and development of unmanned (无人) systems and missile technology. While difficult to evaluate the sophistication of these emerging capabilities, this initial analysis concentrates on indicators of progress in weapons systems that may possess a range of levels of autonomy.
This paper reviews advances in the Chinese military and defense industry to date, evaluates the potential implications of Chinese approaches to arms control and governance, assesses potential future developments, and then considers the strategic implications, as well as policy options for the United States and likeminded democracies. Based on publicly available information, the PLA’s trajectory in the development and potential employment of AI/ML-enabled and autonomous weapons systems remains uncertain. The maturity of these capabilities — as well as if, when, and to what extent weapons systems with greater levels of autonomy have been fielded — cannot be assessed with high confidence at this point. However, as technological competition emerges as an ever more prominent element of great power rivalry, it is clear the Chinese military and defense industry have undertaken active initiatives in research, development, and experimentation. Yet China’s progress will remain contingent upon the capacity to operationalize emerging weapons systems, which will require overcoming current technological and organizational challenges in testing, training, and concepts of operations.
Chinese advances in autonomy and AI-enabled weapons systems could impact the military balance, while potentially exacerbating threats to global security and strategic stability as great power rivalry intensifies. In striving to achieve a technological advantage, the Chinese military could rush to deploy weapons systems that are unsafe, untested, or unreliable under actual operational conditions. The PLA’s strategic choices about which capabilities could prove advantageous will influence the direction of Chinese military innovation. It is encouraging that Chinese military scientists and researchers are starting to debate and engage with safety issues and technical concerns, as well as legal and ethical considerations. Nonetheless, People’s Republic of China (PRC) arms sales to potential adversaries to the United States, and to militaries with little regard for the law of war, threaten U.S. values and interests, while accelerating the proliferation of these capabilities to non-state actors. Going forward, the United States should monitor these trends and pursue measures to mitigate such risks.