Technicians pose in front of a Cai Hong-4 unmanned aerial vehicle in Beijing in June. Developed, designed and built by the China Academy of Aerospace Aerodynamics, its applications range from electronic warfare to law enforcement. © AP
HONG KONG -- There were 1,000 of them dotting the night sky, floating gracefully like glowing purple, red and blue Chinese lanterns. It was the largest-ever demonstration of drones flying in formation, a spectacle that drew gasps from the crowd gathered in Guangzhou, China, to mark the end of the Lunar New Year.
Though it had the festive air of a holiday fireworks display, the Guangzhou drone show in February would be cited less than two weeks later in a U.S. congressional hearing on advanced Chinese weaponry. In testimony before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, Elsa Kania, a former Pentagon analyst and expert on China's military technology, referred to the performance as a "demonstration of swarming techniques" with clear military applications. Chinese experts, she noted, said the same technology behind the stunning air show could be used in a deadly "distributed system with payload modules mounted on small drones."
The February drone show was a perfect illustration of China's progress in developing "dual-use" technologies -- cutting-edge tech that has both civilian and military applications. China, like the U.S., is pushing hard to develop dual-use technologies in areas from artificial intelligence and robotics to virtual reality and gene editing. Such investments can have twin payoffs for the military and the overall economy. The U.S. Department of Defense can spend its budget dollars on research into unmanned flight technology that benefits the military, for instance, and the resulting advances could end up in private-sector drones that will one day deliver parcels to e-commerce customers. The transfer of technological know-how can also flow from the private sector back to the military.
A Guangzhou light show using 1,000 drones in February was referred to in a U.S. congressional hearing as a "demonstration of swarming techniques" with military applications. © Getty Images
Kania, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security think tank, testified that China's military is seeking to use dual-use technologies such as drones, artificial intelligence and automation as "force multipliers" for its military power. If the People's Liberation Army mastered such technologies, she said, it could alter the military balance in the Asia-Pacific and intensify the challenges facing the U.S., Japan, South Korea and their other allies in the region.
Swarming drones are just the start. Other Star Wars-like weapons that are raising concerns across the Pacific include laser-guided bombs, "jammers" that disrupt satellite communications, particle-beam armaments, and electromagnetic and microwave instruments of destruction. Richard Fisher, an analyst at the International Assessment and Strategy Center, spotted Chinese fiber-optic lasers -- a technology vital for laser combat satellites -- at an exhibition this year in Abu Dhabi. Other experts say China would like to establish base stations on the moon with both military and civilian objectives.
"China is progressing in a very wide range of major military technological megaprojects," Andrew Erickson, a professor at the U.S. Naval War College, said.
For the first time since the end of the Cold War, U.S. military supremacy is no longer unchallenged -- a fact that has massive implications for the U.S. economy and its security alliances around the world. China's advances in such futuristic technologies -- and U.S. efforts to counter them -- will have ripple effects on the entire Asian region. Increasing tensions could draw in Japan as it reconsiders its military stance.
Boys do virtual battle at the China International Big Data Industry Expo in the southwestern city of Guiyang in May. © Getty Images
For years, Asia has been the beneficiary of relative peace, which means that it has been able to dedicate its burgeoning reserves to the prosperity of its people rather than to weapons spending. Now, some are asking if this is about to change.
Ash Carter, U.S. defense secretary under President Barack Obama, described Asia earlier this year as "the single most consequential region for America's future." "It will be necessary for the U.S. to continue to sharpen our military edge so we remain the most powerful military in the region and the security partner of choice," he said, adding that China was "far and away the largest transgressor of the principle of nonmilitarization."
This little-acknowledged arms race is part of a technological competition between the two largest economies on the planet. While tempting to portray that competition as the 21st-century equivalent of the Cold War 60 years ago, such analogies are inaccurate because the nature of war has fundamentally changed.