At its Annual Meeting and Summer Party on June 13, 2018, the World Affairs Council of Charlotte enjoyed a presentation by Tate Nurkin. Nurkin is the founder and CEO of OTH Intelligence Group and focuses in his research on China’s military modernization and defense innovation capacity and the global defense industry. He has also accumulated 20 years of experience in the design and delivery of alternative futures analysis methods, such as scenario planning, wargaming and red teaming in support of both private sector industry and the U.S./allied defense and intelligence communities.
Nurkin began by considering the question of competition between China and the United States from the perspective of a decade ago. At that point in time, China was seen as a partner rather than a competitor, especially since competition implies the existence of conflict. Today, in light of tariffs and disputes over freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, the situation has evolved. Still, Nurkin believes that the West should welcome the rise of China — being neither dismissive nor alarmist — so long as China plays by the rules.
In the past, China’s ability to adapt technology for defense has been regarded as imitation, not innovation. It is burdened by three constraints: the structure of its defense industrial base, processes and standards, and a culture not designed to foster innovation. Despite these past limitations, however, Nurkin did his best not to generalize; China is, in fact, innovative and cutthroat, although its innovation system operates differently than that of the United States. Moreover, China has allocated a large amount of funding for technological innovation, including $300 billion for AI. And when it comes to importing technology, China can simply “ask” for the new technology by funding research institutes and inviting researchers from the West.
Concerning the defense industry, Nurkin warned that China has developed a hypersonic glide vehicle, which nothing in the U.S. arsenal can stop. China has also built the world’s largest hypersonic wind tunnel, and DJI controls 70% of the drone industry alone. China is also a leader in quantum encryption, which guarantees secure communication. Furthermore, Nurkin said that, just below the North American AI “grandmasters”, are countless Chinese players. AI has numerous defense applications, including sorting large amounts of information, quantifying citizenship with a social credit score, and producing autonomous and semi-autonomous weapons. Drone swarms — groups of AI-infused drones — are considered the future of warfare and could be a reality as soon as 2030.
During the subsequent Q & A, regarding a question on China’s ability to innovate while spending far less, Nurkin explained that the United States is easily distracted, particularly by our involvements in the Middle East. Finally, on the matter of China’s possible acquisition of Western firms — a practice that could have strategic consequences — Nurkin said that no rules have yet been written to address the issue. Moving forward, allies and partners must collaborate to solve the problem, working together to set norms.
In closing, Nurkin asserted that China is rapidly evolving into a leader in military technology, and though their industry may behave differently than that of the US, it has just as much potential.