During Donald Trump’s presidency, the term “military-civil fusion” (MCF) came to feature prominently in U.S. officials’ characterizations of their concerns about China. While efforts to integrate China’s civilian and defense economies have been a goal of China’s leaders for decades, Xi Jinping has elevated MCF as a priority and has expanded, intensified, and accelerated the effort across multiple domains, including to concentrate on more integrated development of emerging technologies. This strategy is regarded as critical to China’s capacity to succeed in a confrontation of systems.
During the Trump administration, U.S. officials expressed worries over the perceived threat of transfer of dual-use technologies, as well as about the long-term competitive challenge, should this initiative prove successful in improving synergies within China’s innovation ecosystem. Already, the rapid and ongoing advances in China’s military modernization have provided an impetus and sense of urgency for ongoing initiatives in American defense innovation intended to increase investments, explore novel mechanisms for rapid procurement, and improve the Pentagon’s capacity to leverage commercial technologies.
Over the past four years, the U.S. government has invoked military-civil fusion (MCF) to justify a range of policies. For instance, MCF was among the rationales for the reform and expansion of export controls to include certain “emerging” and “foundational” technologies, as well as for the addition of companies and universities to the “Entity List” and “Unverified List” that the Department of Commerce maintains. The Trump administration partially justified attempts to ban WeChat and TikTok from the United States through initial claims about the companies’ alleged linkage to MCF. Moreover, a presidential proclamation on Chinese students and researchers studying in the United States cited students’ proximity to entities engaged in MCF as grounds for denying or revoking visas.
As the administration of President Joe Biden reviews the Trump administration’s posture towards China, policy responses to MCF are likely to attract scrutiny. Should the U.S. continue the past administration’s approach to MCF, or is a recalibration in order? How can America increase its capacity to understand and evaluate military-civil fusion? Does the U.S. need new tools to respond to MCF? How can the Pentagon best position itself given the long-term challenge that China represents as a military rival and technological competitor? —Elsa Kania
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