An Emerging Technological Arms Race
Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum
July 13, 2018

 Program Transcript •  Video


This report is based on the views expressed during a workshop on July 13, 2018 organized by the Richard Nixon Foundation as part of its mission to create and contribute to actionable information for use by policy makers across the globe.

Offered as a means to support ongoing discussion, the report does not constitute an analytical document, nor does it represent any formal position of the organizations involved.


Thomas G. Mahnken is President and Chief Executive Officer of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

He is a Senior Research Professor at the Philip Merrill Center for Strategic Studies at The Johns Hopkins University’s Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) and has served for over 20 years as an officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve, including tours in Iraq and Kosovo.

He currently serves as a member of the Congressionally-mandated National Defense Strategy Commission and as a member of the Board of Visitors of Marine Corps University. His previous government career includes service as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Policy Planning from 2006–2009, where he helped craft the 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review and 2008 National Defense Strategy. He served on the staff of the 2014 National Defense Panel, 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review Independent Panel, and the Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction. He served in the Defense Department’s Office of Net Assessment and as a member of the Gulf War Air Power Survey. In 2009 he was awarded the Secretary of Defense Medal for Outstanding Public Service and in 2016 the Department of the Navy Superior Civilian Service Medal.

Dr. Mahnken is the author of Strategy in Asia: The Past, Present and Future of Regional Security (Stanford University Press, 2014), Competitive Strategies for the 21st Century: Theory, History, and Practice (Stanford University Press, 2012), Technology and the American Way of War Since 1945 (Columbia University Press, 2008), and Uncovering Ways of War: U.S. Intelligence and Foreign Military Innovation, 1918–1941 (Cornell University Press, 2002), among other works.

Tai Ming Cheung is an associate professor at the School of Global Policy and Strategy and director of the UC Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation (IGCC) at University of California, San Diego. He is a longtime analyst and leading expert on Chinese and East Asian defense and national security affairs, especially related to economic, industrial, technology and innovation issues. Cheung worked as a journalist, and political and business risk consultant in Asia from the mid-1980s to 2002 covering political, economic, and strategic developments in greater China.

His book Fortifying China: The Struggle to Build a Modern Defense Economy was published in 2009, followed by Forging China’s Military Might: A New Framework for Assessing Innovation, which he edited. He was previously a correspondent at the Far Eastern Economic Review.

As IGCC director, Cheung leads the Institute’s Study of Technology and Innovation, examining the evolving relationship between technology and national security in China. He also manages the institute’s Northeast Asia Cooperation Dialogue, bringing together senior foreign ministry, defense officials and academics from around the globe.

Tai Ming Cheung and Thomas Mahnken are co-editors of a newly released book, The Gathering Pacific Storm: Emerging US-China Strategic Competition in Defense Technological and Industrial Development.

Issues Discussed

An intensifying technological arms race across air, sea, land, and space lies at the heart of the growing strategic contest between the United States and China.

This rivalry straddles military and economic domains, and influencing it are the respective countries’ industrial policies, foreign direct investment, research and development programs, and threat assessments.

It is taking place against a backdrop of a new age in global communication and the complexities of economic interdependence, as well as the blurring of military and civilian boundaries.

What are the regional and global implications of technological defense competition between these two great powers? How can policymakers from both countries ensure its ends are peaceful?

Key Definitions of Importance and Historical Context

China has been increasing its technological defense capabilities since the 1990s to blunt the projection of U.S. military power. For a while, U.S. dominance in this area was a given. Now, however, China has been closing the gap.

Technological defense capabilities include conventional arms like fighter jets, tanks, and naval vessels to innovations in artificial intelligence, and quantum computing.

The Obama administration response to this development was the launch of the Third Offset Strategy, where the U.S. would explore emerging technology areas and new ways it could establish a strategic advantage.

In 2017, the Trump administration issued its National Security Strategy, which very explicitly called China and Russia great power competitors. It portrays China as using military and economic instruments, as part of an integrated approach to its competitive aims. This document was used to guide the National Defense Strategy, which Secretary of Defense James Mattis signed.

In the 1970s, the Department of Defense adopted The Competitive Strategies Framework developed by Harvard Business School. It was pioneered in the White House under Andrew Marshall, who would later lead the Office of Net Assessment at the Pentagon for nearly five decades.

The competitive strategies approach is guided by the following principles. It’s interactive, working like a chess game in a three move sequence, where each side makes moves, thinks about the other’s move, and the next moves ahead which will offer the best advantages.

It also recognizes constraints. Countries don’t have enough time, money, or resources to make every move they’d like. This was especially true for the United States during the détente period with the Soviet Union in the 1970s, and the end of the Vietnam War. It’s also true today, as the U.S. has recently been winding down wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. In these cases, actors use competitive strategies as a way to enhance deterrence, deter conflict, and convince competitors that it’s better to compete than go to war.

China has been thinking about the United States from a strategic perspective since the mid 1990s. They had become concerned after U.S. forces swiftly beat the Iraqi military — whose capabilities were much like the Chinese at the time — in the first Gulf War. During the Taiwan Straight Crisis of 1995-1996, the Chinese were further concerned that the U.S. would enter the conflict.

Since then, China’s leadership has embarked on a quiet campaign to develop strategic military capabilities, and build a military industrial complex with a robust research and development program.

This includes a strategy of absorption (ostensibly copying) of technology developed by competitors Russia and the United States, as well as new innovation strategies.

  • The United States and China aren’t going to get close to war, but the two countries are becoming intensely more competitive in the areas of military and technology, which do present possible challenges in the coming years.
  • In terms of geo-strategic competition, the China-Taiwan issue is even more concerning than North Korea, as Beijing has stepped up its military encirclement exercises. The U.S. has also recently sent two destroyers to the Taiwan Straight for Freedom of Navigation exercises.
  • Gross National Product (GNP) is not a good way to measure China’s economic growth because China is constantly deconstructing and rebuilding — and gets credit for producing the same unit multiple times. However, China cannot be underestimated.
  • China is harnessing its innovation in a very authority manner — bucking conventional wisdom that nations which innovate are more democratic.
  • It’s going to be increasingly difficult to influence China moving forward, as it has become powerful and prosperous on its own.
  • The U.S. should do a better job of protecting its defense technology against China cyber theft and hacking.
  • The U.S. should not increase state intervention and direct commercial technological innovation to make up for lost ground against China. The Untied States’ free market oriented system still makes it the world’s leading technological innovator.
  • Immigration is a strategic asset to U.S. technological advancement. An academic degree in a technological field from an American university should come with a pathway to citizenship.
  • The U.S. has to take a strong stance with China — especially on trade — but it has to be nuanced and careful that it not cut off relations with China in significantly important areas.
Further Reading and Sources

Cheung, Tai Ming and Mahnken, Thomas G. The Gathering Pacific Storm: Emerging US-China Strategic Competition in Defense Technological and Industrial Development. Cambria Press. 23 June 2018.

Photo: Tai Ming Cheung (left) and Thomas Mahnken (Richard Nixon Foundation).