Flashpoints

Intellectual Property, Defense Technology, and the Future of Great Power Relations

The idea that technological catch-up is possible may be flawed.

Robert Farley
Intellectual Property, Defense Technology, and the Future of Great Power Relations
Credit: www.usaf.mil

Editor’s Note: This article is the third in a series on a recent International Security article. Read the first and second in the series.

What do Gilli and Gilli mean for great power relations in East Asia? Potentially, their argument is hugely consequential for how we think about competition between the United States and China, not to mention Japan and South Korea. If the Gillis are right, then the national security community in the United States can rest just a bit more confident in the long-term security of the American military advantage.

To recap, the Gillis argue that the increasing complexity of the industrial demands for supporting modern military technology have made “catch up” monumentally more difficult today than it was in the early 20th century. Gilli and Gilli tested their expectations against the German quest for dreadnought battleships in the early 20th century, and the Chinese quest for stealth aviation technology in the early 21st century. They find that the Germans had an easier time of managing the technical challenges associated with advanced battleship construction than the Chinese have had with stealth technology, in large part because the industrial demands of the latter are considerably more complex than the former. The Gillis conclude for this and other reasons that concerns about China catching up with advanced U.S. military technology are a touch overstated.

For my part, I think that the evidence on China’s stealth ambitions is more ambiguous than the Gillis allow. We can grant that China is some 20 years behind the United States in terms of developing stealth technology, and that the most advanced of China’s stealth projects (including the J-20 and the J-31) have significant problems. But China is also ahead of… every country in the world not named the United States in stealth technology, and has accomplished this despite starting from a lower core of industrial competencies than Europe, Japan, or Russia. And China has succeeded in part because of its legitimate access to the global technology market, in part because of its theft of key technologies, and in part because of high state investment to develop core industrial competencies.

That said, the general case that the Gillis are making seems correct; China cannot simply steal what it wants from the United States and “catch up” with U.S. military technology. Instead, China must devote enormous national energy to following up U.S. military developments, and it’s not obvious that the military technological gap between China and the U.S. will close as long as the basic technological gap continues to persist.

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Moreover, it seems likely that states like South Korea (ROK) and Japan, generally believed to start at a higher level of sophisticated technological development than China, will be able to take advantage of this level of development to invest more efficiently and stay ahead of China. Moreover, the extent to which the defense industrial bases of the ROK and Japan are able to take advantage of collaboration (which imparts organizational and administrative benefits, as well as granting access to the transfer of tacit knowledge) with the United States and Europe also speaks well to their ability to successfully compete with China. Firms in the U.S. defense industrial base regularly work closely with their counterparts in Korea and Japan, facilitating the transfer of technical expertise even as the transfer of specific technologies remains prohibited.

Long story short, the Third Offset is predicated upon the idea that information technology allows countries like China to catch up rapidly with countries like the United States, and the Gillis have brought this idea into question. If they are correct, and they martial a lot of evidence in their favor, the U.S. military advantage may be more robust and long-lasting than either Beijing or Washington have assumed, and the U.S. may be able to transfer some of this advantage to its allies in Tokyo, Seoul, and elsewhere. The persistence of U.S. military advantage over China has a great deal of impact on how we might sketch out the geopolitics of the Pacific for the rest of the 21st century.