RAND Intelligence: China’s Weapons R&D Progresses, But Copycat Model Makes It Hard to Rank Among World Leaders

In a just-released report, the RAND Corporation, a U.S. think tank, noted that China has taken many effective steps in weapons development over the past few decades, narrowing the gap between China and the world’s advanced levels. However, China’s R&D system, which is based on the theft of military technology from other countries, makes it difficult to achieve a breakthrough and catch up with the world’s top military technology.

This is one of the judgments made by the RAND Corporation about China’s military research and development capabilities in a new study released Thursday (July 15). The report, titled “Russia and China’s Defense Procurement,” was published on RAND’s official website. The report provides a systematic description and analysis of the characteristics, as well as the strengths and weaknesses, of Russian and Chinese weapons development.

The report says that China’s weapons development capabilities have increased rapidly in recent years, which is closely related to a series of measures China has taken to recruit talent and acquire foreign technology.

Over the years, the Chinese government has actively sought overseas students to return to work in China after completing their studies, and this effort has yielded remarkable results. nearly 80 percent of overseas students returned to China in 2016. What attracted them to return home was the improvement of salary levels and other incentives in the country.

However, the report notes that these young people lack the managerial experience to manage large system integration projects and lack the technical skills to manufacture high-end technology products. To address this problem, China has taken the approach of increasing investment, acquiring foreign technology, and entering into joint venture partnerships with foreign countries. Doing so will both raise the business level of lower-level technical personnel and give domestic professionals more opportunities to learn about advanced foreign technologies.

The report points out that China’s reliance on the theft of foreign intellectual property for weapons development is a fundamental problem that is hindering China’s ability to improve its weapons development capabilities. While stealing foreign intellectual property can improve its competitiveness in the short term, it also keeps a gap between China’s level of weapons development and foreign advances for several years.

China’s pattern of copying can easily encourage reverse engineering (working backwards from a foreign product to its manufacturing process) at the expense of basic R&D efforts. However, the RAND report says China has begun to remedy this deficiency by significantly increasing its R&D spending since 2010, with annual increases of nearly 15 percent.

But this raises another problem, the report says, in that these R&D activities are concentrated in the hands of state-owned enterprises, making them even larger, which runs counter to China’s direction of developing a market economy. In terms of size, the report said the U.S. has the most of the 22 defense companies with the highest global revenues, holding nine positions, while China ranks second, with eight positions.

Overall, the RAND report said, China’s efforts have solved some old problems in research and development, and in some areas, such as ballistic missiles, Chinese researchers have achieved “substantial results. But in other areas, such as aircraft, China’s progress has been nothing more than a natural accumulation of copycat patterns from decades past.

The report concludes that the PLA has addressed many technological obstacles, but that this progress has largely been the result of absorbing foreign experience and foreign technology through intellectual property theft, procurement and joint ventures. The PLA has struggled to innovate on its own and close the technology gap with international advances. China continues to struggle to make breakthroughs in many areas, including high-end chips, submarine silencing and aircraft engine manufacturing.

The report notes that if the Chinese military is determined to overcome these technological barriers, it must first address institutional inefficiencies and numerous obstacles in areas such as management and quality assurance. These problems continue to hamper China’s R&D capabilities.