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China Caught the U.S. in Manufacturing, High-Tech Weapons Might Be Next

by John Reed on June 29, 2012

It’s no secret that China (and many other nations) are catching up with the U.S. in education and manufacturing. A quick Google search can reveal the massive gains China’s manufacturing and education sectors have made over the last three decades. Experts have long warned that the U.S.fast slipping far behind it’s industrialized peers in terms of critical education sectors;  science, technology, engineering and math.

The worst part they say; as the U.S. is slipping, China is rising. First, it mastered — some would argue, it still is mastering — basic manufacturing and it has begun investing heavily in higher-end engineering and scientific education, paving the way for it’s rapid gains in high-tech manufacturing. Now, China is starting to turn this investment in engineering and scientific knowledge toward producing high-end military gear.

Just look here, here and here to see how fast the Chinese military is growing. This great technological leap forward owes much of its success to China’s large investment in an education system that produces far more engineers each year than the American university system — something you’ll hear any American defense executive lament. These engineers — with plenty of help from information acquired from America and Europe via espionage, reverse engineering Western gear and partnerships with Western companies — have helped design China’s new crop of fighter jets, anti-satellite missiles, space planes and more.

Chinese engineers have also designed the sophisticated cyber weapons that have stolen reams of information from American defense contractors and the Pentagon to fill in gaps in Chinese weapons designers knowledge. Meanwhile, American companies like GE are partnering more and more with Chinese firms such as COMAC to produce everything from jet engines to cutting edge avionics, as we’ve said above, these partnerships provide China with information on how to catch up with the the U.S.

So while China’s manufacturing and engineering knowledge base might not yet be at the same level as America’s, it’s getting better every day as its engineers take on more challenging projects and learn from their partners at world-class companies like GE.

To learn a bit more about this issue and what can be done to keep the U.S. on top of its game in the face of rising competition from China, DT asked Naval War College Professor, Kathleen Walsh for her take on all this. Here’s her bio, needless to say, she’s got the ear of plenty of decision makers and influencers when it comes to China policy. Click through the jump to read her answers to our questions.

When will China catch the U.S. in terms of high-end engineers capable of designing and building quality, high-tech goods and military equipment?

In terms of sheer numbers, it won’t take long.  Of course, quality is what matters here, and that will
take longer, probably a decade and perhaps much more.  I’m told by industry experts that Chinese engineers coming out of Chinese schools are quite proficient in basic engineering skills, but that they
typically tend to lack the independent initiative and innovative approaches that at least Western multinationals are seeking and tend to be important in advanced science and engineering.  So, I think it will
be some time (10+ yrs) before they’re able to produce similarly advanced, independent engineering as US, with some exceptions possible. But though they might not “catch us,” that is not to say that they won’t
be marginally innovative or adaptive in important ways in the meantime – something we need to be cognizant of.  Of course, our own labor force in this sector is ageing, retiring, and largely comprised of foreign
students.  So I’m not sure this is the right question — us v. them. Perhaps it is what we can continue to do to attract high-quality engineers wherever they come from and however advanced China might
become.  That is the nature of the current competition — growing and attracting the world’s best STEM talent.  We’ve been very good at this since the World War II era; many studies suggest policy reforms are needed to ensure we remain so, on which, in general, I concur.

How soon will China make the leap from partnering/licensing/stealing western designs and tech to innovating its own game-changing technology?

 They are already in the process of doing so, at least in some select areas (info tech sector, especially).  The way I see it, China will continue to engage in all of these activities along the full spectrum of
activities (from stealing/copying through independent innovation) for some time. The earlier stages, of course, help develop the latter, more advanced indigenous innovation capabilities China seeks. Multinational corporations know this, too, and seek to find ways to maintain their edge and advantage. It’s a two-way game.

What are some of the potential roadblocks to China’s rise in these areas?

Education, I think, is a big road block as it is something that is hard to “grow” fast (you can build a university but that is not the same as establishing a high-quality educational institution and faculty). China has some elite schools and faculty, but these are largely (not entirely) found in the eastern cities (Beijing, Shanghai,
Guangzhou and some others). China’s military, defense industry, and researchers are still located in many cases in the Central-Western provinces. So, we’ve seen the military trying to employ (according to State plans) these elite universities for training, recruiting, and partnering as well as in assistance in building more universities in
other parts of the country, as well as greater focus on attracting foreign experts, faculty, and foreign university programs. But this is, by its nature, a long-term solution to a current gap.

How can the U.S. remain competitive?

As indicated in my testimony and comments made in that hearing Q&A, I think there has been a tipping
point that affects how the US must answer this question today. That tipping point is tied to the nature and evolution of globalization – which has seen the outsourcing and offshoring of manufacturing, followed
by the same for R&D, and now, I think, of science itself — much of it to China. If science (basic and applied sciences) becomes a truly global endeavor in which China is a major player (as is becoming the case as China invests billions in it and attracts some of the world’s leading scientists, engineers, and innovators to its shores as well, at least for temporary stints in China), then this suggests to me that the US must find better ways to leverage this global trend –and China’s increasingly important role in it— rather than shy away from it or
simply seek to control or contain it (which I think will yield diminishing returns at best and harm our own S&T efforts if we’re not privy what’s going on in China S&T by being involved strategically at least in part). The United States, European Union, and increasingly China (some might include Russia too) are among the few that, in a world of more global science, I think, are likely to continue to invest in a full spectrum of basic science, including frontier science; in a more globalized system where science and its results are more readily
accessible (as it becomes more globally cooperative, outsourced, commoditized, and offshored), smaller countries will likely not feel the need to invest in such themselves — if they can access/buy from others,
except in those areas in which they might have a scientific competitive advantage.  Every country wants to be more innovative and scientifically advanced in order to grow and advance their economy today. I think only
some big countries like the US and China will have the ability to do so, which suggests to me opportunity and a need to be more engaged rather than operating in wholly separate spheres as in the Cold War era. This
approach has its inherent dangers, but the tipping point to me is that the risks of NOT doing so as China becomes more scientifically advanced have begun to outweigh the risks inherent in doing so — and will grow.
As such, I advised that we should be flooding the place (China) with students, scientists, and others to learn more about and be more involved in China’s science and technology efforts as a way to leverage this (their) investment (as they do ours and others’) and, most importantly, serve US national security interests

I must, as you know, add a disclaimer that these are my own personal views and in no way represent
US government, DoD, US Navy, nor Naval War College, which should be made clear in anything made public.

Now, the rise of China and other nations isn’t necessarily a bad thing for the world. Still, if the U.S. wants to remain competitive to a rising China, it must invest more in its education system — part of that also means reforming the immigration system  and ensuring we have a level economic playing field to attract and keep the world’s best minds in our country. We’ve got the size, natural resources, a decent sized population, and for now, brainpower to compete with China, but unless we take a look at the numbers in terms of education, we may not always be competitive in the private sector or the defense arena.

If you want more arguments of how China — and others — are rapidly moving forward while the U.S. risks being surpassed, read this depressing article called Why America Is Slouching Towards Third World Status by Harvard University’s Steven Strauss.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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