As trade talks continue with no end in sight, this “new era” of U.S.-China relations features frictions over technology and manufacturing ever more prominently. In particular, “Made in China 2025” continues to command headlines. Since its launch in 2015, this initiative has been the subject of intense concern and recurrent controversy, resulting in a level of prominence that is quite singular for a rather abstruse matter of industrial policy. Made in China 2025 is but one key piece of a complex architecture of plans and policies aimed at generating “innovation-driven development,” an agenda that has emerged as a clear priority under Xi Jinping’s leadership.
In many respects, the launch of this initiative reflected a response to the weakness of Chinese manufacturing capabilities relative to global leaders, while also seeking to take advantage of a perceived opportunity to achieve a new source of growth. Increasingly, Made in China 2025 has come to be emblematic of these ambitions, rightly provoking intense U.S. anxieties over China’s emergence as a technological powerhouse that rivals American leadership. The core objective of advancing “indigenous innovation” to enable China’s “national rejuvenation” has been highly consistent across recent generations of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leaders. In this regard, the technological dimension of China’s rise is integral to its future trajectory as a rising power with global ambitions.
At its core, Made in China 2025 has aimed to transform China into a “manufacturing superpower.” In particular, the plan highlighted 10 priority sectors, which include new-generation information technology; advanced numerical control machine tools and robotics; aerospace technology, including aircraft engines and airborne equipment; and biopharmaceuticals and high-performance medical equipment. At a time when China’s economy is slowing, the embrace of such emerging industries and technologies is seen as a critical means to sustain and upgrade growth. For instance, the pursuit of advances in intelligent manufacturing is seen as vital to ensure future competitiveness against the backdrop of a new industrial revolution.
These objectives are not unique to China. Made in China 2025 was inspired by a close study of Germany’s “Industry 4.0” initiative. In this regard, it is not the focus of this initiative, but the intentions reflected in its objectives and execution that are concerning. In a world in which technology and innovation have become highly globalized, China has sought “self-sufficiency” in core technologies across a range of prioritized industries. Implicitly and often quite explicitly, China’s objective to become a manufacturing superpower implies the ambition not merely to catch up with other advanced economies but to surpass and displace them to achieve a dominant position in these industries worldwide.