Xi Jinping’s Vision for Artificial Intelligence in the PLA

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Xi Jinping’s Vision for Artificial Intelligence in the PLA

China is seeking to use “intelligentization” to build a “world-class” military.

Xi Jinping’s Vision for Artificial Intelligence in the PLA

People’s Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers march past a poster depicting Chinese President Xi Jinping at their quarters during the opening ceremony of the 20th National Congress of China’s ruling Communist Party in Beijing, China, Sunday, Oct. 16, 2022.

Credit: AP Photo/Andy Wong

Xi Jinping, at the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) on October 16, stated that more quickly elevating the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to a world-class army is a strategic requirement for building a modern socialist country in all respects. At the 19th Party Congress five years ago, Xi insisted China would build a world-class army by the middle of this century; this time he did not mention a definite deadline but clearly stated that he would achieve the goal more quickly.

How is Xi trying to accelerate the construction of a world-class military? The PLA is seeking to capitalize on the introduction of advanced technology, with a particular focus on the use of unmanned weapons and artificial intelligence. In this report, Xi Jinping mentioned the word “intelligent” (智能化) three times. The concept of “intelligent,” which refers to the use of weapon systems based on artificial intelligence, has rapidly gained attention since the release of the 2019 National Defense White Paper.

Xi said in this year’s congress that China would adhere to the integrated development of the PLA through mechanization, informatization, and intelligentization. These words indicate that the concept of intelligentization, which has developed rapidly since 2019, has been accepted into China’s national defense policy and that the national leadership has expressed its willingness to promote it. At the 19th Party Congress in 2017, Xi said that, by 2020, the PLA will basically achieve mechanization, make great progress in informatization, and greatly improve strategic capabilities. At this year’s congress, intelligentization was added to this list. In addition, the PLA has recently been actively discussing the relationship between mechanization, informatization, and intelligentization, and has established the concept of “three-izations,” (三化) in which they are not to be achieved in stages but are to be pursued simultaneously and in parallel.

During the Mao Zedong era, China invested a lot of money in the construction of nuclear forces, and the development of conventional forces lagged far behind. Deng Xiaoping changed this and began building a modern army equipped with conventional weapons. During the Jiang Zemin era, the PLA, shocked by the fighting style of the U.S. military, which made full use of precision-guided weapons in the Gulf War, promoted “high-tech” military development. Under Hu Jintao, the PLA – impressed by the way the U.S. military fought in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars – advanced “informatization.” In the first and second terms of Xi Jinping, the PLA also promoted informatization.

The fact that China is simultaneously advancing mechanization, informatization, and intelligentization suggests that despite these decades of reform, parts of China’s massive military are not yet even mechanized. However, in past military history, the presence of old-fashioned forces in an innovative development process is not necessarily a stumbling block. In 1940, Germany defeated France in just 42 days by blitzkrieg, utilizing tanks. At that time, only a small percentage of the German army was mechanized, and the majority of the German army was still an old-fashioned force dependent on horses and foot soldiers. This shows that even when only a small percentage of an army has the most advanced equipment of its time, it can be innovative in fighting.

For this reason, the most attention should be paid to the progress of the intelligentization of the PLA. This includes the introduction of artificial intelligence in the PLA and the development of new strategies that make use of it.

Xi said that the PLA will study and gain a good grasp of the characteristics of informatized and intelligent warfare and the laws that govern it, provide new military strategic guidance, and develop strategies and tactics for a people’s war. To realize these goals, Xi said, “We will establish a strong system of strategic deterrence, increase the proportion of new-domain forces with new combat capabilities, speed up the development of unmanned, intelligent combat capabilities, and promote coordinated development and application of the network information system.”

The strategy and tactics of the people’s war, which Xi referenced, mean fighting not only with the military but with the total power of the nation. This implies that informatization and intelligentization will not be achieved solely by the military, but will mobilize all of China’s assets and scientific and technological development. In addition, the people’s war is the traditional idea of asymmetrical warfare since the time of Mao Zedong. However, future Chinese asymmetric warfare will not be the guerrilla warfare of the past but will utilize artificial intelligence.

Papers that have been published so far by PLA senior officials and strategists show that the PLA is seeking to use artificial intelligence in four main areas. One is the autonomy of unmanned weapons, including the development of swarms of numerous drones. China aims to conduct highly autonomous integrated operations with a variety of unmanned systems and unmanned weapons.

The second is processing large amounts of information through machine learning. For example, the PLA is building a network of unmanned weapons and undersea sensors in the waters surrounding China and is attempting to process information obtained from this network using artificial intelligence. In addition, the PLA is considering a new form of electronic warfare that uses artificial intelligence to analyze received radio waves and optimize jamming.

The third is the use of artificial intelligence to speed up military decision-making. In the United States, studies point out that the use of artificial intelligence for decision-making, such as those involving nuclear strategy, has raised the risk of “flash wars,” in which conflicts escalate instantaneously. In China, too, there is debate over the extent to which decision-making should be entrusted to artificial intelligence in light of these dangers. For the time being, therefore, rather than delegating complex decision-making to artificial intelligence, it is likely that China will utilize artificial intelligence for simple tasks such as information processing and autonomous weapons.

These three are common arguments for new ways of fighting using artificial intelligence in the United States, such as “mosaic warfare” and “decision-centered warfare.” The unique argument in China is the idea of using artificial intelligence in cognitive warfare.

Cognitive warfare is influencing the cognition of the human brain and the will of the opponent to create a strategically favorable environment or subdue the opponent without a fight. In China, there is an active debate about cognitive warfare. For example, Qi Jianguo, former deputy chief of staff of the PLA, has stated that those who gain the upper hand in developing new-generation artificial intelligence technologies will be able to control the lifeline of national security: human cognition.

The PLA has not stated how it intends to use artificial intelligence to control human cognition. One means would be deep fakes, which are videos, images, and audio that have been altered or generated using artificial intelligence. There is concern that China could use artificial intelligence, such as language generation, to create social media content that could be used to manipulate public opinion in Taiwan or to try to discredit the United States’ trying to support Taiwan.

Building a world-class army implies an army that is comparable to the U.S. military. Of the three aspects of mechanization, informatization, and intelligentization, the PLA lags behind the U.S. forces in mechanization and informatization at the moment. However, if the PLA acquires intelligentization, even in a small portion of the PLA, as the German army in 1940 showed, the PLA may be able to catch up with the United States military.

Thus, China is trying to find a way to capitalize on cutting-edge technology. In this light, the broad U.S. restrictions on semiconductors will be a major blow to China’s development of artificial intelligence and the intelligentization of PLA. If technology development takes a hit, the construction of a world-class military may fail.