Is China’s Path to Military Parity With the US Through Intellectual Property Theft Doomed?

A new article turns conventional wisdom on competitive military modernization on its head.

Is China’s Path to Military Parity With the US Through Intellectual Property Theft Doomed?
Credit: U.S. Navy photo courtesy of Marinette Marine/Released

At the journal International Security, Mauro and Andrea Gilli have published an article that has the potential to turn scholarly thinking on the diffusion of military technology on its head. Franz-Stefan Gady has already interviewed the authors about this article, but its conclusions deserve even greater attention. The Gilli brothers argue that, contrary to long-standing beliefs about how the “first mover” advantage in military technology is shrinking, it may in fact be growing. If they’re right, this has enormous implications for how to think about the balance of military power and technology in the Asia-Pacific.

The Gillis’ core argument boils down to this: The increasing complexity of the industrial base needed to produce sophisticated military technology makes it more difficult for states to catch up with the most advanced tier of countries than at any time since the industrial revolution. While Germany could plausibly make up ground against Britain in battleship technology, or Russia catch up with the United States in submarine or jet tech, the radical complexity of modern military technology makes it very hard for China to catch up in areas such as stealth. This runs counter to expectations, generated by beliefs about the ease of transmission of data produced by information technology, that competitors will eliminate the first mover advantage more quickly than ever before. Such thinking has structured the Pentagon’s “Third Offset,” designed to keep the United States ahead in an ever-more-competitive technology environment.

Indeed, it runs counter to some assumptions that lie at the core of how realists think about military technology. Broadly speaking, realists have long assumed that military technology spreads across the international system in relatively smooth fashion, as security-seeking states (at least among great powers) try to gain access to the latest military equipment. This argument implies a more bumpy world, one in which states face hard obstacles to acquiring the military technologies that they want.

According to the Gillis, modern military technology has become radically complex compared to the early 20th century. Modern weapons include a bewildering array of components (often produced by a huge range of firms), and these components are individually sophisticated and difficult to construct. This means that states require an immense intellectual and physical infrastructure to develop and construct modern weapons. The demands of effective modern military shipbuilding, or of maintaining an effective modern military aviation industry, increase dramatically over time

The argument has huge implications for power transition theory, which in turn might force us to rethink such constructs as the “Thucydides Trap.” Much discussion of the military balance in East Asia, and in particular the balance between the United States and China, has been predicated on the notion that, in military technology, the rich don’t get richer. The Gillis suggest that this gap is much harder to bridge than most analysts have assumed. Moreover, as globalization increases the returns to specialization for national industrial bases, the prospect of successful copying becomes even more tenuous.