On geopolitics and innovation: How the military technology race between the U.S. and China will shape global security

October 16, 2023

Carlos Cantafio Apitz and Branka Marijan
Cover of report with US and China flags
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The intensifying rivalry between the United States and China is continuing to fuel the speedy innovation and adoption of emerging military technologies (EMTs). Forecasting the effects of these new technologies on warfare and strategic stability is difficult because they depend on many factors. These include the speed of technological progress; the ways in which new technologies are deployed by existing military platforms and strategies; the potential interplay between emerging technologies; and the degree to which domestic forces/national policies and international law shape their progress, integration, and application.

The United States and China have steadily increased military spending in the most recent five-year period (2017 to 2021), reaching in 2021 an estimated U.S.$770B and $270B, respectively. The budget request for the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) of approximately $840B for fiscal year 2024 is in great part driven by this rivalry. Indeed, U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III stated that the request was based on “a strategy-driven budget – and one driven by the seriousness of our strategic competition with the People’s Republic of China.”

The cited estimates of China’s military spending are believed to be incomplete and lower than  actual spending. This is in part due to exclusion of some programs, such as certain military research, from the official defence budget and partly because of the lack of public transparency regarding China’s military expenditures. Still, it is clear that recent increases in China’s defence budgets are driven by what it perceives to be “escalating threats” and “external attempts to suppress and contain China.”

China has also sought to become less dependent on critical components from the United States and its allies as it seeks “global technological supremacy.” This quest for independence can be seen in the focus of its military-civil fusion strategy on the dual-use nature of emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI). The United States and its allies have similarly sought to move away from reliance on China for components and have even sought to restrict China’s access to certain technologies, notably semiconductors. Technological primacy underlies the latest American and Chinese developments, with the United States seeking primacy retention and China primacy obtention.

This commentary will (1) briefly explore great power competition as a cause and consequence of the development of emerging military technologies and (2) highlight the need for greater bilateral and international cooperation, regulation, and oversight to manage this growing arms race.

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