21 June 2011

Tai Ming Cheung, “The Chinese Defense Economy’s Long March from Imitation to Innovation,” Journal of Strategic Studies (June 2011)

Tai Ming Cheung, The Chinese Defense Economy’s Long March from Imitation to Innovation,” Journal of Strategic Studies, 34.3 (June 2011): 325-54.

China’s defense economy has been vigorously developing a comprehensive set of innovation capabilities that will eventually allow it to join the world’s top tier of military technological powers. China’s target is to catch up by 2020. Although this maybe possible in a few select areas, the defense economy as a whole will likely require another decade or more to successfully master the ability to produce major innovations of a radical nature. This paper analyzes the key areas in the Chinese defense economy’s gradual but accelerating shift from imitation to indigenous innovation.

In its quest for defense technological excellence and self-sufficiency over the past 60 years, China has sought to pursue a two-pronged development strategy of indigenous innovation and imitation. But the country’s technological backwardness, economic underdevelopment, and international isolation during much of this period meant that innovation took a back seat. A few sectors of critical strategic importance did successfully nurture home-grown technological cap- abilities, most notably the nuclear weapon and ballistic missile programs, but the overwhelming proportion of the conventional defense economy has relied on the copying, adaptation, and incre- mental improvement of foreign technologies.

With growing prosperity and global integration in the twenty-first century, China’s leaders have called for the building of a world-class indigenous national innovation system that would allow the country and the defense economy to meet all its technological needs within the next couple of decades. Under intense leadership scrutiny, China’s weapons designers and builders are busy forging an autonomous innovation capacity. Considerable progress has been made as a result of ample access to financial, human, and research resources, strong political support, inflows of foreign technologies and know-how, and the introduction of advanced modes of governance, market competition, and management.

This paper examines the progress made by the Chinese defense economy in shifting from imitation to indigenous innovation. It will begin by identifying key capabilities that a state requires in advancing along the innovation path and the different stages and development routes from imitation to innovation. This will be followed by a detailed review of the evolution in innovation capabilities of the Chinese defense economy over the past decade. …