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China’s fifth-generation medium fighter jet, the Shenyang J-31, or Fighter Hawk, now in development.

China’s fifth-generation medium fighter jet, the Shenyang J-31, or Fighter Hawk, now in development.

Danny Yu/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

China to create its own DARPA

Heeding Chinese President Xi Jinping’s calls for his country to get serious about innovation to buoy its faltering economy, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is bringing military R&D back under its oversight and launching a new agency modeled after the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), ScienceInsider has learned.

China is joining a trend in Asia: Japan has launched a DARPA-like agency, and South Korea is planning one, too. “It is natural that China and other countries are trying to establish DARPA-like organizations that can marry cutting-edge science and technology for defense applications,” says Richard Weitz, director of the Center for Political-Military Analysis at the Hudson Institute, a think tank in Washington, D.C. But whether China can succeed is an open question, he asserts, as DARPA’s success—the Internet is its most famous creation—is rooted in U.S. protection of freedom of expression. China has one big advantage, he says: It’s “very effective in acquiring advanced technology from foreign businesses through cyber and other means.”

As part of Xi’s reorganization of the armed forces to focus on five theaters of operation, China has formed a new science and technology committee to manage defense R&D. According to a spokesperson for China’s Ministry of Defense, the committee, known in Chinese as junweikejiwei, is designed to meet the needs of China’s ongoing military modernization. The committee will strengthen management of defense science and technology, promote indigenous innovation in national defense, and coordinate integrated development of military and civilian technologies, the spokesperson says. China’s central government plans to spend $147 billion on defense this year; the amount allotted to defense R&D is a state secret. “Nobody knows how much is spent on military R&D,” says Dennis Blasko, a former Army attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing.

The new committee resurrects strong central government oversight of defense R&D. Modern China’s founder, Mao Zedong, established a national defense science committee in 1958 to drive development of atomic weapons. In 1982, it was folded into a civilian commission charged with coordinating national defense research activities at nonmilitary ministries. Xi has brought oversight of R&D back to the military; the junweikejiwei reports to the Communist Party’s Central Military Commission, which Xi chairs. The new committee is headed by Liu Guozhi, an applied physicist and academician of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. An expert on high power microwaves, he formerly commanded the Malan nuclear test base in Xinjing, China, and was deputy director of the dissolved PLA General Armaments Department. Liu’s committee is now creating the DARPA-like agency under it, according to a source who requested anonymity. The source did not provide details about the agency’s planned size, scope and budget, or when it will begin operating.