23 December 2013

China SignPost™ “Greatest Hits” #5: Industrial & Technical Development

Andrew S. Erickson and Gabriel B. Collins, “China SignPost™ ‘Greatest Hits’ #5: Industrial and Technical Development,” China SignPost™ (洞察中国) 77 (23 December 2013).

China SignPost™ 洞察中国–“Clear, high-impact China analysis.”©

A bevy of recent developments in China’s shipbuilding and aerospace sectors highlights important dynamics playing out in its overall technical-industrial growth and development.

On the shipbuilding front, Chinese naval yards are now the world’s busiest warship builders, with at least six classes of surface combatants and submarines now under construction simultaneously. With China very likely preparing to construct follow-on aircraft carriers to complement the Liaoning, its possession of multiple yards capable of building large vessels with modular construction techniques is a huge strategic asset. China’s large number of empty, or soon to be empty, civilian shipyard spaces may yet prove militarily useful.

China is also rapidly developing significant high-end aerospace engineering and design capabilities, ranging from spacecraft to modern fighter airframes. For instance, it has developed and is now testing the low-observable J-20 fighter, an aircraft that, with the right engines and technical inputs, could shift the air power balance in the Asia-Pacific Region.

Meanwhile, however, China is still struggling to mass-produce high quality and reliable indigenous jet engines for both military and commercial aircraft. The jet engine struggle suggests the limits of an R&D philosophy of “problems can be solved by throwing money at them” and points to the possibility that many segments of Chinese industry may require a significant philosophical, organizational, and management revamp in order to become globally competitive on the basis of true innovation.

Indeed, at the most fundamental level, the jet engine saga is a critical case. It will likely provide a useful barometer for whether China will continue to be a lower-cost assembler or whether multinational corporations will eventually have to contend with a Chinese equivalent of Google, Apple, GE, or Siemens that can compete on quality and innovation, rather than low cost. In turn, moving up the innovation ladder would be positive for wealth creation in China since more of the value-added of products would stay in the hands of Chinese inventors, license-holders, and manufacturers. Increasing domestic innovation capacity, at least to a modest extent, is likely one of the key hurdles for successful transition to the new growth model that China’s economy now needs badly. In following these key factors, a key indicator to watch is where China’s wealthy are making their money.

In 2014 and beyond, China SignPost will examine an even broader array of technological and industrial sectors. This will enable it to better serve as a pathfinder that identifies and illuminates pockets of risk, value, and opportunity in a fast-paced, complex world. In an era of considerable uncertainty, China SignPost works diligently to identify the trends that offer opportunity today and to help you plan and position effectively for the future.

About Us

China Signpost™ 洞察中国–“Clear, high-impact China analysis.”©

China SignPost™ aims to provide high-quality China analysis and policy recommendations in a concise, accessible form for people whose lives are being affected profoundly by China’s political, economic, and security development. We believe that by presenting practical, apolitical China insights we can help citizens around the world form holistic views that are based on facts, rather than political rhetoric driven by vested interests. We aim to foster better understanding of key Chinese developments, with particular focus on natural resource, technology, industry, and trade issues.

China SignPost™ 洞察中国 founders Dr. Andrew Erickson and Mr. Gabe Collins have more than a decade of combined government, academic, and private sector experience in Mandarin Chinese language-based research and analysis of China. Dr. Erickson is an Associate Professor at the U.S. Naval War College’s China Maritime Studies Institute (CMSI) and an Associate in Research at Harvard’s John King Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies. Mr. Collins is a J.D. candidate at the University of Michigan Law School. His research focuses on commodity, security, and rule of law issues in China, Russia, and Latin America.

The positions expressed here are the authors’ personal views. They do not represent the policies or estimates of the U.S. Navy, the U.S. Government, or any other organization. The authors have published widely on maritime, energy, and security issues relevant to China. An archive of their work is available at www.chinasignpost.com.