What travels faster? China's most advanced missile or the anger of its citizens on social media?
I appreciate that we are not comparing like with like here, but scientists have tried to estimate the speed of both these things.
The hypersonic missile, which China is reported to have recently added to the Red Army’s arsenal, is said to fly at 3,850 mph (7,000 kph). That is five times the speed of sound, yet is slower than a ballistic missile.
Meanwhile, a study of 70 million messages on the Chinese social media platform Weibo, conducted by defense experts P. W. Singer and Emerson Brooking, found that the emotion that traveled the fastest and farthest was anger.
Singer and Brooking also noted that the Chinese authorities have become adept at using smartphones to police thought and manipulate emotion.
Emerson Brooking told NPR radio that the job of the censors in China is “to monitor and infiltrate political conversations on WeChat and other platforms and basically seed positive things about the Chinese government.”
Inevitably, the authorities seek to keep their internet surveillance systems away from scrutiny by foreign observers, leaving outsiders with only a hazy impression of how the online world is policed.
The details of China's hypersonic missile are somewhat hazy, too. Reports about its test flight in August are all based on a piece in the Financial Times, which was drawn from a conversation between journalists and shadowy figures inside the United States intelligence services.
They claim they were “caught by surprise” by China's progress on hypersonic weapons.
Some media outlets, such as the BBC, later claimed that China had “denied” the FT’s report about the hypersonic missile. Yet, tellingly, the Global Times — a mouthpiece for the most wolfish faction of the Chinese Communist Party — chose to give its readers the impression that the new weapon could well be a real threat to the United States, and thus boost China's status.
“It is important to note the unstoppable trend that China is narrowing the gap with the U.S. in some key military technologies, as China is continuously developing its economic and technological strength,” said the paper.
The Global Times added that China doesn't need to engage in an "arms race" with the U.S.
However, in an era of intense great power competition, it's inevitable that the U.S. and China will constantly try to appraise which nation is dominant in technology and defense.
According to Nicolas Chaillan, who recently resigned his position as the U.S. Air Force’s first software chief, it is China which has the edge in a number of important areas.
Chaillan told the Financial Times: “We will have no competing fighting chance against China in fifteen to twenty years. Right now, it’s already a done deal. It is over, in my opinion.”
Pressing his point home in interviews with other international media outlets and meetings in Washington, Challian said the U.S. Department of Defense has placed too much dependence on conventional military assets — such as fighter jets, tanks, and missile systems — and has fallen behind China in fields such as artificial intelligence, machine learning, and cyber security.
For Chaillan, “whoever dominates in artificial intelligence will control the world.”
All of this creates a pressing issue for Japan, as Japan’s new prime minister, Fumio Kishida, has acknowledged.
He has appointed a specialist defense expert named Takayuki Kobayashi, who was educated at Harvard Kennedy School, to the Japanese Cabinet.
The minister's brief is to consider the implications for Japan of China’s increased technical prowess. This includes an appraisal of how vulnerable Japanese businesses and organizations are to Chinese cyberattacks.
Minister Kobayashi is pressing Japanese companies to become more sophisticated in creating semiconductors. He has already been influential in persuading Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company, the world’s largest chip manufacturer, to build a new plant in Japan.
A concerted effort is underway to gradually shift Japan away from depending on China for vital components for its tech industry — a process which started under former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and runs in parallel with efforts by some U.S. companies to “decouple” from China, to some extent.
In the United States, the Senate recently approved $250 billion USD in funds geared towards semiconductor production and artificial intelligence as part of the Innovation and Competition Act.
In an apparent reference to China, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said: “We’re going to compete to win, but we’re going to do it the right way. We’re not going to cut corners on safety, security, or ethics.”
Under former Prime Minister Abe, Japan expanded defense spending and took a tough line on China.
The governing LDP party, led by Mr. Kishida, advocates an expansion of defense spending, noting that in Europe, U.S. allies are aiming to spend 2% of gross domestic product on defense — double Japan's current level.
The main opposition, the Constitutional Democratic Party, says that its foreign policy will be grounded on the U.S.-Japan alliance and it will support the open Indo-Pacific vision. The CDP also wants Japan to have more say in the way the alliance is run and proposes a reduction in the U.S. military's footprint in Japan.
The CDP is entering the election in a pact with the Japanese Communist Party (JCP) and two other groups. This has led the LDP to say that its duty is to protect Japan from communism and the aggressive actions of the Chinese Communist Party.
Voters will have their say on the matter in the election for the Lower House of the Japanese parliament, which will be held at the end of October — an election which will decide if Mr. Kishida continues as Japan's prime minister.
Author: Duncan Bartlett
Duncan Bartlett is a regular contributor to JAPAN Forward and is the editor of Asian Affairs magazine. He is a research associate at the SOAS China Institute, University of London, and is currently teaching diplomacy and international relations on the Economist Executive Education course, A New Global Order.
Find his essays on JAPAN Forward at this link.