China Power

China Has Its DARPA, But Does It Have the Right People?

Recent Features

China Power

China Has Its DARPA, But Does It Have the Right People?

China has the institution to fuse civil-military R&D. Now can it attract the necessary talent?

China Has Its DARPA, But Does It Have the Right People?
Credit: U.S. Navy photo by John F. Williams/Released

“Japan lost the innovation race with the United States because it lacked an institution with the strategic managerial capacity of the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA),” a senior advisor to Japanese Premier Shinzo Abe declared four years ago at a Pacific Forum CSIS event in Taipei.

Japan, the adviser asserted, must learn from its mistake and set up a DARPA-like agency in Tokyo. Russian President, Vladimir Putin announced in 2012 that Moscow would launch a DARPA lookalike. Even the European Union, which has for the past decade been locked in a devastating institutional inertia, has since Brexit strategized ways to harmonize defense R&D and initiate a European version of DARPA. Assuredly, the United States’ DARPA has become legendary.

China is the latest great power to follow suit and fund its own version of DARPA. Earlier this year Beijing set up a “military steering committee on innovation,” which will emulate DARPA’s paradigmatic model and preempt any technological surprises detrimental to Chinese national security. The “Chinese DARPA” will report directly to the chairman of the Central Military Commission, President Xi Jinping himself.

A major success of the “DARPA model” has been its capacity to fuse the civil with the military; that is, to combine military and civilian institutions and incubate groundbreaking technologies. DARPA often works as a curator, coordinating the nation’s best scientific assets and thus “accelerating transformational technological advances in areas that industry by itself is not likely to undertake because of technical and financial uncertainty.” As Jay Schnitzer, a former director of DARPA’s defense sciences office once put it, DARPA’s job is to create the future, not to understand or to forecast it.

Xi’s China seems to be thinking with equal ambition about the future. Xi has repeatedly asserted the need for a “civil-military fusion” to shape disruptive future technologies and has doubled down on joint civil-military research projects by establishing a special civil-military integration bureau. The new military steering committee on innovation, China’s DARPA equivalent, is the pinnacle in this strategy. It can coordinate diverse organizations across the country, spot key scientific or managerial capital, and insightfully funnel the nation’s intellectual resources toward radical defense technologies.

China’s innovation learning curve has been steep. With tailored state support, Beijing has long copied the United States but has only lately leapfrogged and is now competing neck-and-neck in emerging technologies like artificial intelligence and quantum communications. Still, however, the scientific capacity of the world’s second largest economy remains limited compared to the United States. Only two Chinese universities – Tsinghua and Peking – are featured among the world’s finest and abundant state funding has yet to encroach on U.S. primacy in dual civil-military technology like microprocessors – a technology of immense value in the “Second Machine Age.”

Of the important variables used in assessing the innovation race between the United States and China, human capital is perhaps most critical. As Harvard’s Venkatesh Narayamurti put it last January at a Tsinghua lecture, innovation seems to be the child of a synthesis between basic and applied science, yet it is the availability of high quality human capital that makes the ultimate difference between the success and failure of high risk R&D projects. American private endeavors like Bell Labs as well as DARPA have been successful because they do not just invest in projects; they invest in highly capable and motivated people. Both feature a radical inclusion of the best talent they recruit.

So, as China tries to emulate DARPA as an institution it must be asked whether it has the constituent elements of DARPA’s success: people. Does China have access to Nobel laureates and the world’s prime human capital? Even though Beijing has poured enormous resources into attracting talent and has spearheaded strategic projects like the “1,000 talents program,” success has only been partial. The vast majority of Nobel Laureates still prefer to work and theorize in U.S. institutions and only visit China for lucrative public lectures or trophy titles like non-resident deanships in Chinese universities. While there has been increasing repatriation for millions of very bright Chinese students who are educated in prestigious U.S. universities, many still prefer to pursue a career in America. Those who return to China face an impaired environment for advanced scientific research: internet restrictions, severe air pollution, and most strikingly, campaigns to cleanse higher education from “dubious  Western values.”

What is more, thinkers are not just attracted to money; they need noble goals and romantic aspirations to stimulate their creativity. The core narrative of the Chinese president on the “rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” or the “China Dream” could be a noble idea, motivating many Chinese repatriated scientists. However, world class innovation demands global multi-ethnic human capital; no nation – however populous – can rely solely on its national talent pool. World leading innovation necessitates attracting the best and brightest scientists, managers, strategic thinkers, and artists, without racial, ethnic, ideological, or other subjective discrimination. Excellence, merit, and adherence to the laws of the republic should be the sole arbitrators for thinkers.

A close screening of DARPA’s success attests to the significance of cosmopolitan multi-ethnic and multidisciplinary human capital committed to high aspirations. What has made DARPA great has been its people, mostly immigrants committed not only to the material benefits of a rich capitalist economy but also to the values of the American republic.

Nick Christofilos – “the crazy Greek” as his colleagues called him – was an immigrant who invented particle accelerator machines, initiated DARPA’s stratospheric missile defense (Project Argus), first theorized on laser weapons, and advanced silent submarine communication systems – a key technology for nuclear deterrence. J. C. R. Licklider, a psychologist, envisioned from the early 1960s the symbiosis between humans and machines and spearheaded the research that led to the internet.

Bob Kahn, a Jewish American, invented the Transmission Core Protocol (TCP) – a key line in the internet architecture – and complemented Licklider’s work. These scientists along with the elite members of the “Jason” team, which included the top scientific minds from across the country, were advising DARPA and held deep convictions about the values of the republic. While most of them understood the Promethean power of their discoveries they saw their military contribution as essential to protect the United States and the world from the despotism of the Soviet Union.

As Harvard Business Review former editor Joel Kurzman has attested:

Far from being cloistered, DARPA’s 120 program officers and their support staff are engaged with the world, as exemplified by the competitions. They are influenced by the latest academic research and also by science fiction, music, art, literature, and even movies. (DARPA has a lot in common with the Broad Institute at MIT, with its full-time artist in residence.)

Even if China could attract the scientists, could it also attract the artists, when dissent is intolerable? Without interdisciplinary synthesis radical innovation will be impaired.

To be sure, the work of DARPA and its scientists has not always been moral. One dark page in DARPA’s story was its affiliation with the Vietnam War and its research on Agent Orange, which was responsible for mass carcinogenesis in Vietnamese populations and U.S. veterans. However, for all its moral limitations, DARPA has been the birthplace of technologies that have shaped modernity, from the internet to GPS to precision sensors to autonomous cars and drones to ground breaking biotechnology and artificial intelligence.

An unfortunate characteristic of this innovation process is that there is an enduring time lag between invention and diffusion. As Annie Jacobsen explains: “The consequential weapons systems of the future are born black, as in classified, and, like the hydrogen bomb, McNamara’s electronic fence, Assault Breaker, and stealth technology, are unveiled to the public only after they have created a revolution in military affairs (RMA).”

This clandestine technological race is the outcome of what I have described as a “race for the Ring of Gyges.” The Ring of Gyges can be seen as the ultimate disruptive technology, a source of technological power that turns a state into a perpetual global hegemon. The Ring of Gyges metaphor exemplifies the role of science and technology in the operational code of the strategic community of both China and the United States. Auspiciously, however, when peace is sustained this race for tech primacy does eventually spill over to the civilian sector, with massive public dividends.

In this regard, China’s decision to emulate DARPA and pursue “high-risk projects of revolutionary technological impact” need not fatalistically lead to a Sino-U.S. military conflict. Human agency with targeted intervention can catalyze the spillover from DARPA (U.S. or Chinese) inventions to the civil sector and narrow the time lag between a Revolution in Military Affairs and a seriously needed productivity boost of our economies. Pacifists could echo Buckminster Fuller and truly hope that China’s investment in weaponry will diffuse to “livingry” and that the “next internet” will not be solely Chinese but globally owned.

Vasilis Trigkas is an Onassis Visiting Scholar at Columbia University and a Non-Resident Handa Fellow at the Pacific Forum CSIS. A graduate of Tsinghua University, he is a cofounder of the Belt and Road Center for Strategic & Economic Studies in Athens, Greece.