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Q&A with Tai Ming Cheung: 'Forging China's Military Might'

FILE - Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning cruises back to port after its first navy sea trial in Dalian, northeastern China.

FILE - Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning cruises back to port after its first navy sea trial in Dalian, northeastern China.

China has announced its defense budget for 2014 and caused more anxieties among its neighbor countries in Asia, as the new $132 billion budget increased 12.2 percent from a year ago.

China’s growing influence in the world has included expanding military capabilities. While we could never fully know all of China’s abilities, we can examine circumstantial evidence to build a good framework of knowledge about strengths and limitations we could expect to see from China. The nation has not been engaged in a substantial military conflict for almost 40 years, yet China has watched conflicts around the world since that time and has moved to keep its forces updated should it find itself at war.

Tai Ming Cheung, the Director of the University of California Institute on Global Conflict & Cooperation in San Diego, along with several colleagues has been assessing China’s level of defense technology innovation. Their findings are in the new book, Forging China’s Military Might, to which Tai Ming Cheung contributed and edited. He spoke with VOA Daybreak Asia host Jim Stevenson about his research.

STEVENSON:The subtitle for the book is “A New Framework for Assessing Innovation.” China has long been criticized for copying, stealing, emulating [technology]. How much innovation is really going on within their military at this point?

CHEUNG:The Chinese actually have a fairly clear cut strategy. They call this the IDAR strategy. They “I”ntroduce, which is they bring in; they “D”igest; they “A”ssimilate, (and) “R”e-innovate.

And the key part about understanding Chinese innovation itself is that there are two types of innovations that the Chinese are trying to do, especially in the defense theater but also more broadly. One is probably called “just good enough” innovation. They do not need to have an advanced, sophisticated approach, but it is having technological capabilities that are just good enough that are cost effective, that match the characteristics of the country. Or the other approach, which is what the U.S. and more advanced countries produce, the “gold plated” type of innovation, very, very frontier type of innovation. And the Chinese are doing that. But that is not where a lot of their focus is. Their focus is on just good enough right now.

STEVENSON:In terms of military, if you are behind, it must be very difficult to bring yourself up to par with the leaders out there. And if China is a “catch-up” nation, can they ever hope to really catch up with, say, the U.S. military?

CHEUNG:It is a very long term approach. The Chinese have only been really seriously engaged in this catch-up technology and innovation effort in the last 20 odd years. So what they see are different races the Chinese are pursuing.

There is the immediate race where they are worried about their external security environment where it is dealing with Japan, of the U.S. strategic pivot, or dealing with Taiwan, or these immediate concerns. They want equipment they can use right now. They import and do this re-innovation strategy. That allows them to get just good enough capabilities.

But then the Chinese military and the defense industrial apparatus says, “Well, we also have to keep our eye on the long term. We have to make investments in our research and development base that may not lead to capabilities in the next five or 10 years, but 20 or 30 years."

STEVENSON: Are we finding ourselves in somewhat of an arms race at this point in the sense of trying to stay ahead of China?

CHEUNG:I think there is an increasing sense of that. The U.S. has been trying to downplay a direct arms race. It is much more of indirect developments that are taking place. The U.S. looks at China, but China is not quite where the Soviet Union was in the Cold War days before the 1990s. China is one of several countries that the U.S. needs to keep attention on itself.

But I think that if China is able to continue to make the rapid progress that it showed in defense science and technology in the last decade, and if they are to even continue or accelerate this progress in the next five to 10 years, I think the U.S will become even more concerned than it is now.
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    Jim Stevenson

    For over 35 years, Jim Stevenson has been sharing stories with the world on the radio and internet. From both the field and the studio, Jim enjoys telling about specific events and uncovering the interesting periphery every story possesses. His broadcast career has been balanced between music, news, and sports, always blending the serious with the lighter side.