U.S. Congress Grapples with Threats as China Harnesses AI for Military Superiority
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The U.S. Congress grapples with national security threats as China is rapidly harnessing AI for military superiority.
The Chinese Communist Party’s strategic approach aims for “intelligence supremacy.”
Amid rapid advancements in AI, the U.S. Congress finds itself at a critical crossroads. While the world witnesses the relentless progress of AI technology, American lawmakers are now grappling with the challenge of harnessing its potential while safeguarding national security.
In the report “Code War: How China’s AI Ambitions Threaten U.S. National Security” by American Security Project, a significant concern arises — China actively employs AI for military advantage, which poses a threat to the U.S.’s interests. The growing apprehensions voiced by members of Congress underscore the necessity for immediate legislative action in adapting to the changing AI landscape, as being uninformed is no longer a valid reason for delaying action.
China’s drive towards fifth-generation warfare is greatly bolstered by its substantial national investment in AI. China’s Communist Party holds complete authority over the nation’s economic priorities, facilitating significant state spending in specialized areas. Consequently, the country’s proportional defense expenditure on AI far surpasses that of the United States.
China’s Strategic Pursuit of Global Tech and Intelligence
The Chinese Communist Party aims to lead the world in artificial intelligence by 2030, seeking “intelligence supremacy” through strategic investments. This strategy will enable China to leapfrog the United States in technological advancement, assert control over disputed territories, and secure global leadership in innovation and cognition, as intelligence supremacy is seen as paramount.
China is putting a lot of money into getting important new technologies and focusing on artificial intelligence. The country has three main plans for this: first, it wants to rely less on foreign tech and invest in its research and development. Second, it’s using AI and other technology in the military, like weapons and strategies. Lastly, it also aims to bring tech from international markets and businesses into China’s state security operations.
In 2020, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) allocated between $1.6 and $2.7 billion, equivalent to roughly 1.2% of their annual defense budget, for AI. During the same year, the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) invested between $800 million and $1.3 billion in AI, which is one-tenth of China’s proportional defense spending.
Looking forward, the DoD’s budget request for AI initiatives in FY24 stands at approximately $1.8 billion. Moreover, China’s AI industry, which its military and intelligence agencies can tap into without the consent of foreign entities, is anticipated to reach $14.75 billion.
The Influence of U.S. Tech Giants in China’s AI Sector
According to the report, foreign firms, knowingly or unknowingly play a role in supporting China’s civil-military fusion program through research, investments, sales, and other activities.
Even private companies that adapt their business models for Western partners often can’t shield themselves from state interference. American tech corporations aid in transferring advanced and dual-use information and communication technologies (ICT) to China’s security apparatus.
Microsoft, a significant supplier to the U.S. government, plays a pivotal role in transferring AI and cutting-edge technologies to China. Through its Azure cloud platform and partnership with China Mobile, more than 900 million Chinese subscribers have access to AI tools similar to those in the United States. With over 10,000 employees in China, including 3,000 focused on AI development, Microsoft serves as a strategic bridge for importing American AI knowledge and expertise to China, a figure expected to double in some locations by 2025.
On the other hand, Amazon Web Services (AWS), a major player in cloud computing, holds high-impact contracts with Chinese government partners, raising questions about the security implications. For instance, Ningxia Western Cloud Data Technology Co., partially state-owned and linked to U.S.-sanctioned Beijing Highlander, provides Amazon’s services, including advanced Machine Images Deep Learning technology, to Zhongke Guangqi Space Information Technology Co. (CASSpace), which offers remote sensing and satellite services to Chinese state and defense agencies.
Meanwhile, Meta attempts to gain access to the lucrative Chinese market despite concerns about data policies and intellectual property theft. The tech giant has consistently made efforts to enter the Chinese market despite its products being banned in the country since 2009. These attempts include substantial investments in research, startup funding, and partnerships with Chinese Communist Party (CCP) entities.
Although Meta doesn’t operate directly in China, its businesses and supply chains have become entwined with the country. Notably, the company’s ad revenue increasingly depends on Chinese investors selling to the international market.
Meta’s founder and CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, has publicly criticized the CCP’s data policies and intellectual property theft. Nonetheless, Meta’s persistence in trying to access China’s vast domestic market demonstrates how its appeal outweighs the security risks for American firms.
Closing Legislative Loopholes for AI Security
Legislative gaps allow American AI developers to indirectly assist China’s defense efforts, transferring U.S. government-funded military technology. Some of these developers safeguard classified information while becoming vulnerable to exploitation. To halt this technology transfer, Congress should investigate how American cloud storage and AI contractors integrate into China’s AI ecosystem.
The U.S. government should consider China’s extensive intelligence network when making contracts. To prevent military and dual-use AI from reaching foreign adversaries, American defense contractors must not operate within China’s critical technology sphere. Given the CCP’s authority to access foreign data in the name of “national security,” Department of Defense contracts should prohibit defense contractors from collaborating with CCP-sponsored partners in AI, regardless of intent or origin.
While multinational companies and arms exporters can assist in preventing AI misuse, policymakers should prioritize recommendations from impartial experts. These companies often prioritize economic opportunities in large foreign markets over their commitment to U.S. national security, as seen in their responses to increasingly restrictive market conditions in China.
The report’s authors concluded that cooperation among Five-Eyes (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States) and NATO countries is essential to promote responsible global AI proliferation and deter China from circumventing sanctions through other foreign partnerships. An international commitment to AI ethics in military applications, along with strong standards for AI safety, testing, and auditing, can prevent unintended escalation and ensure responsible use of new defense systems.
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