Digital transformation
AI Frontlines: China’s PLA evolution vs. NATO's counterplay

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This paper delves into the transformative strategies of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in integrating Artificial Intelligence (AI) within its maritime and aerial defenses, reflecting on the shift towards "intelligent warfare" as outlined in China's 2019 Defense White Paper. The paper examines the PLA's focus on AI-driven weapons and technologies, particularly in enhancing air defense and coastal security capabilities, redefining traditional military approaches through increased efficiency, adaptability, and real-time decision-making. Furthermore, the paper explores the PLA’s AI application in cyberwarfare, emphasizing the shift from reactive defense to proactive threat detection and countermeasures. It highlights the PLA's strategic focus on leveraging AI for cybersecurity, information warfare, and establishing a civil-military collaborative innovation ecosystem to sustain its technological advancement. Contrasting China's advancements, the paper also analyzes NATO's AI Strategy, adopted in 2021, which emphasizes responsible AI development, enhanced interoperability, vigilant protection of AI technologies, and safeguarding against malevolent AI usage.

The study underscores the urgency for NATO to recognize and address these AI-driven strategies to safeguard its interests and maintain a strategic advantage in the Indo-Pacific region, particularly in light of China's assertive military expansion and the importance of the South China Sea for global trade. The paper concludes with the assertion that understanding and countering these technological advancements are crucial for maintaining balance and ensuring peace and stability in the region.

Background: NATO and the Rising Significance of China and the Indo-Pacific

In the fluid landscape of global geopolitics, the Indo-Pacific region has increasingly become a central concern for NATO due to China's assertive rise. The maritime landscape in the Indo-Pacific, interlaced with multifaceted territorial disputes and Beijing's expanding grasp, is not an isolated Asian quandary. This body of water, stretching from the bustling ports of Taipei, through the geopolitically charged Taiwan Strait, and encompassing strategic junctions like the Strait of Malacca and South China Sea, plays a vital role in global commerce. Any disturbance in its stability holds potential ramifications across the world. Apart from the evident economic considerations, these sea lanes are susceptible to China's aggressive territorial claims, maritime militia activities, grey zone operations, and an escalating potential for military conflicts.

The pace at which NATO's perspective on China has transitioned is both swift and significant. Historically focused on North Atlantic affairs, a seismic shift in the alliance's strategic focus has emerged. By late 2019, NATO leaders began publicly expressing their concerns about China. This sentiment was further fortified in subsequent years, with the 2022 Strategic Concept notably highlighting China. NATO's increasing concerns are rooted in Beijing's overt ambitions, aggressive policies, military augmentation, and its adeptness at economic coercion tactics. As a result, the Asia-Pacific Four — Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, and Japan — marked their presence at the NATO summit for the second year running in July 2023. Such engagements underscore a fact: the issues of the Indo-Pacific extend beyond its geographic boundaries and have implications on a global scale.

In addition, as China deepens its engagement with Russia, backing Putin’s unjustified invasion of Ukraine in 2022, stakeholders in Europe are on high alert for potential repercussions affecting themselves. In its latest China Strategy, Berlin recognizes that “China’s decision to further its relations with Russia has direct security implications for Germany.” To respond, Germany will reportedly expand its military cooperation with partners in the Indo-Pacific and, for the first time, send troops to participate in a joint military exercise in Australia. Germany's spotlight on the Indo-Pacific and its clear call for actions indicate Berlin's recognition of challenges brought by China in the region.

Following the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine, there was a dramatic 116% surge in cyberattacks on NATO member nations, which could be traced back to Chinese IP addresses.

Meanwhile, NATO also expressed concern about the growing strategic partnership between China and Russia as well as new threats in the cyber realm. Following the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine, there was a dramatic 116% surge in cyberattacks on NATO member nations, which could be traced back to Chinese IP addresses. While NATO officials have warned potential aggressors that a cyberattack on a NATO member state could trigger Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, its collective defense clause which says that any attack on a NATO member “shall be considered an attack against them all.”  The exact origins of those cyberattacks remain contested and warrant further investigations. It is, however, evident that NATO has identified the worrisome Chinese cyber capabilities and joined the U.S. to decry China for state-sponsored cyberattack in recent years.

In sum, as global power dynamics continue to shift, NATO and its key member states have increasingly turned their strategic attention to China and the broader Indo-Pacific region. Based on this, this article will further discuss how the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has adopted artificial intelligence (AI) to enhance its cyber capabilities and its Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (C4ISR) strategy in the maritime and air arena. The article will also explore the implications of these developments for NATO in response to emerging threats.

AI Strategies of China and AI Advancements in the PLA’s Maritime and Aerial Defenses

In China's 2019 Defense White Paper, a transformative shift in modern warfare is outlined. The paper declares that warfare is no longer simply "informationized" but is rather evolving within the domain of "intelligent warfare". This notion of the "form of war" (战争形态) emphasizes that the nature of war itself is changing, moving from the information age's signature warfare - informationized warfare - to its next phase driven by intelligent systems and artificial intelligence. President Xi Jinping's vision is clear in its ambition: to rapidly mold the PLA into a globally competitive force, not only in terms of traditional military hardware but also in technological sophistication. The "intelligentization" (智能化) drive places AI-driven weapons at the center of China's defense ambitions. As the PLA converges the "three-izations" (三化) - mechanization, informatization, and intelligentization - it signifies a pivotal evolution in its military doctrine, with AI at its core.

In addition, harnessing the transformative capabilities of AI in both air and maritime realms has been a focal point for the PLA. According to insights from PLA experts and affiliated analysts, this transition has the potential to reshape military dynamics significantly. Traditionally, air defense relied on human decision-making and radar systems to detect and counter threats. However, PLA experts and their observations suggest that integrating AI into air defense may greatly enhance the efficiency and accuracy of these operations. Unlike manual interventions that are prone to potential human error, AI offers immediate adaptability. Specifically, the PLA's sophisticated algorithms are believed to be particularly adept at optimizing satellite coordination, ensuring efficient communication, and managing space-based assets (天基资产). [1] Furthermore, Chinese experts argue that AI's capability to analyze communication patterns might foresee potential disruptions, enhancing communication reliability for surveillance, weapon system coordination, and real-time multi-platform operations. [2]

Moreover, PLA experts described data as the "blood" of AI and is at the crux of this transformative phase. PLA affiliates emphasize that authentic adversarial data may form the bedrock for refining combat principles. The lessons drawn from the U.S. on blending multisource data to reduce natural interferences resonate strongly within the PLA's expert community. The ultimate aim, as envisioned by many in the PLA, is a seamless melding of AI's computational prowess with human oversight.

On the other hand, China's vast coastline, with its inherent security challenges, has long demanded extensive human and resource investments for monitoring. However, PLA experts suggest that the AI revolution may redefine their coastal defense strategies. By focusing on AI, there is a potential for round-the-clock unmanned surveillance, intelligent data gathering, and real-time threat analysis. The incorporation of unmanned radars, drones, and autonomous underwater vehicles may pave the way for consistent automated patrols for the PLA. [3] This AI-enhanced approach, driven by President Xi Jinping's doctrine for "intelligentization" of warfare, might ensure real-time information relay and enhanced decision-making during coastal operations across multiple areas among different forces, and the ability for simultaneous assessment in the battlefield instead of conducting evaluation afterward. Their goal is not just to respond but to evolve swiftly by making ultra-refined decisions via machine, constantly adapting to new inputs, at a speed and scale far beyond that at which humans can execute commands. [4] The new warfighting concept, as noted by PLA analysts, is not merely reactive but also proactive, adapting continuously to new situational inputs.

Combined with the PLA's assertive expansion in the South China Sea, exemplified by the construction of artificial islands, enforcement of the expansive nine-dash line claim, and interruptions to ASEAN nations' fishing activities, the AI-enhanced approach provides strategic advantages that could be leveraged further. The geographical foothold of China facilitates the seamless deployment of underwater and aerial unmanned vehicles, as well as the installation of sensors across these islands to boost PLA’s C4ISR capabilities, enhancing situational awareness, and facilitating cross-platforms information sharing and decision-making. More alarmingly, this forward deployment offers PLA an opportunity to expand their integrated air defense systems (IADS), potentially leading to an extension of their anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) and anti-submarine warfare’s (ASW) operational envelope, posing substantial risks to the freedom of navigation and sea lanes vital to allied nations.

It is also worth noting that the operational dynamics of PLA’s coastal defense strategy are undergoing a shift. PLA strategists and analysts highlight the potential transition from a "frontier reconnaissance followed by control" (前侦后控) to a more immediate "detection and strike" (侦打一体) modus operandi. This evolution implies the use of AI-powered drones capable of autonomously optimizing attack formations. With AI-enhanced reaction times in military operations and the continuous evolving defense tactics of PLA, there is a potential to pose challenges to NATO member states' interests and supply chain stability in the Indo-Pacific.

While China remains the European Union’s largest trade partner, it is important to recognize that significant numbers of those trade transactions are conducted through both sea and air routes, which can be prone to China’s expanding power projection. For instance, the South China Sea serves as a crucial conduit for the trade of several EU member states that are also part of NATO,  making the safeguarding of these trade routes in the interest of NATO member states, as it impacts the Alliance’s economic well-being. In addition, these sea and air routes in South China Sea are also susceptible to potential future military or grey zone operations conducted by the PLA. Given NATO’s commitment to a rules-based international order, the preservation of peace and stability in this region is a core interest of the Alliance in upholding global norms. Moreover, NATO member states have forged incrementally strong alliances with Indo-Pacific countries, including Australia, Japan, New Zealand, and the Republic of Korea, collectively known as the Indo-Pacific Four or IP4. These partnerships, strengthened over the years due to strategic challenges posed by a more assertive China and other global issues, highlight the importance of NATO's strategic positioning to ensure the security of these like-minded allies. Any disturbance in the Indo-Pacific can have indirect repercussions on NATO’s interests and obligations. Therefore, it is essential for NATO to prepare for potential contingencies and maintain its military and technological advantage over any opponents that could directly or indirectly sway its values and interests.

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AI Application in the PLA’s Cyberwarfare Development

In the digital age, where the adage "technology shapes tactics" reigns great significance, the PLA recognizes the profound impacts of AI on cyber warfare. Within the complex realm of digital conflict, AI emerges as a transformative force, redefining the very fabric of cyber offense and defense. The autonomy and speed advantages of AI-powered network weapon systems are set to shape this domain, compressing the tempo of cyber engagements into incredibly fast time scales. It is a revolutionary shift where cyber battles, once limited by human constraints, could now unfold at "machine speed."(机器速度)

Central to the PLA's vision is the understanding that AI's potential in cyber warfare extends beyond reactive defense. For example, AI's capability to bolster early warning systems in cyber warfare is pivotal. By combining AI's computational strengths with expansive data streams, a robust system for "cybersecurity situation awareness and early warning" can be realized. [5] The envisioned system would not only respond to threats but also anticipate them. Utilizing machine learning for "real-time automatic processing and monitoring of network traffic" and deploying "intelligent risk prediction models," the PLA aims to establish a preemptive defense, detecting and countering threats even before they fully materialize. Such advances, seen through the lens of the PLA's objective to "detect cybersecurity threats more quickly and comprehensively," signify a seismic shift in cyber defense paradigms.

Also, the pace of updating and iteration of disruptive technologies in cyberspace is accelerating. In light of this, Chinese experts argue that emerging technological factors such as big data and AI are increasingly playing a role in discourse dissemination and public opinion guidance via “bot armies”, [6] which China officially names it as information warfare. It is thus necessary for Beijing to rely on a new generation of network communication technology to achieve the indigenization of information transmission infrastructure, raise the threshold and cost of social network attacks and cyber intrusions. For the Chinese intelligence community and the United Front Department, an AI-led cyberoperation can enable them to swiftly intercept and counteract the enemy's methods of signal intelligence and political warfare. Areas such as cryptology, disinformation campaign and intelligence analysis are expected to be the focus for them.

Chinese experts further argue the reason why the West can rely on cyber hegemony to carry out technological and social network attacks is precisely because they have complete and mature cyber infrastructure. They hope they can utilize A.I. to realize immersive external propaganda and internal guidance, or to even leverage the metaverse, to support the Chinese narrative. Priority should be given to seizing the terrain of international communication, breaking the Western discourse monopoly, and making cyber technology capable of both attack and defense.

Yet, the technological aspect is just one side of the coin. An approach that leverages both civil and military expertise forms the foundation of this vision. It is not news that without a robust research and development strategy and significant number of talents, none of this can be easily carried out. Therefore, cybersecurity, a domain marked by Beijing as the military and civilian fusion (MCF) which resources and innovations from the private sector can be directed to military development, presents opportunities for synergies. Tapping into the talent pools of local cybersecurity vendors, higher education institutions, and research institutes can provide the PLA with an advantage, blending military strategy with civilian innovation. By focusing on constructing an "AI talent team" and fostering an "innovative cyber talent ecosystem," the PLA acknowledges that in the AI era, it is human expertise that remains paramount. Drawing both from domestic sources of expertise and international AI luminaries, the PLA seeks to create an ecosystem where innovation thrives and can outplay any powers or military alliances, including the U.S. and NATO.

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NATO’s AI Strategy

In terms of NATO's AI Strategy, the Allied Defence Ministers formally adopted an Artificial Intelligence Strategy for the alliance in 2021. With AI poised to touch every facet of NATO's core tasks, including collective defense, crisis management, and cooperative security, the alliance's strategy is rooted in collaboration among its member states, ensuring a united approach in leveraging and defending against AI's capabilities. The NATO AI Strategy has a quadruple agenda: to pioneer responsible AI development for defense, to fast-track AI adoption for enhanced interoperability, to vigilantly protect AI technologies and uphold principles of responsible use, and to safeguard against malevolent AI usage. One of the critical objectives is to maintain NATO's technological edge, ensuring that AI integration supports the Alliance's core tasks responsibly. The Defense Innovation Accelerator for the North Atlantic (DIANA), a body with dozens of accelerator sites and test centers to solve critical security challenges, and collaborations with the private sector and academia underpin the strategy's implementation, making sure that NATO remains the primary transatlantic forum for AI in defense. In 2022, the NATO Science and Technology Organization (STO) alongside the NATO Communications and Information Agency (NCI Agency) also initiated a strategic endeavor focusing on AI and exploring its potential impacts within the military domain.

Recognizing the potential risks, NATO timely stresses minimizing interference in Allied AI, protecting the technology from exploitation and using strategic communications to counter disinformation campaigns. Ultimately, the NATO AI Strategy is not just about technology adoption; it is a commitment to maintaining the alliance's technological edge in a rapidly evolving battlespace, ensuring collective security in the face of new-age threats.

In light of PLA’s ambition to leapfrog into a future where it operates at "machine speed," NATO must reflect on its AI and China strategies and adjust them accordingly.

Sunny Cheung


China’s burgeoning strength, particularly in the realm of AI applications in cyber and C4ISR capabilities, poses a multifaceted challenge to NATO’s technological edge, supply chain security and economic interests given the dependance on China. The PLA's methodical and strategic embrace of AI, which seamlessly integrates technological innovation, civil-military synergies, and a robust focus on talent acquisition, exemplifies China's holistic approach to digital warfare. This becomes especially concerning given China's substantial investments in AI development, which are three times that of the U.S. The fact that the U.S., one of NATO's leading members, may lag behind China in foundational AI research, as warned by Pentagon’s ex-software chief in 2021, adds an additional layer of urgency to NATO's mandate.

NATO has initiated efforts such as the DIANA and the NATO Innovation Fund (NIF), reflecting its commitment to harnessing innovation. These initiatives, akin to the U.S.'s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), aim to bridge the gap between the commercial and military sectors for the development of dual-use emerging technologies. The recent Edge Conference further depicted NATO's determination to integrate both sectors to address future challenges. NATO must foster accountability, urge the commercial sector to actively collaborate, and adapt its AI regulatory frameworks to be more agile. Investments, both in thought and finance, should be optimally directed to ensure NATO's dominance in the evolving AI landscape.

In addition, excessive regulations might limit NATO’s own AI advancements, and could thereby risking it falling behind the rapidly evolving technological innovations of the PLA. Therefore, an informed perspective on China's AI strategies can guide NATO in crafting a more effective response to the PLA's AI capabilities, especially in terms of combat performance and C4ISR capabilities if missions are assigned in the Indo-Pacific. Given China’s strategic advantage in terms of logistic and deployment due to the close proximity, as well as its expanding control over sea and air domains of potential flashpoints such as the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait, it is crucial for NATO to bolster real-time support mechanisms for its allies in the Indo-Pacific. Moreover, in the expansive domain of cyber warfare, where China operates vast state-sponsored cyber units, NATO faces a potential numerical disadvantage. To avoid being overwhelmed, NATO must focus not only on matching numbers but also on improving its own cyber quality, resilience, and responsiveness with AI. This will ensure that NATO remains a formidable and combat-ready force in both physical and digital battlefields in times of crisis.

The digital age has ushered in an era where streams of 0s and 1s might very well determine geopolitical outcomes. For NATO, understanding, adapting, and innovating in the face of such advancements is not just a necessity but an imperative. In light of PLA’s ambition to leapfrog into a future where it operates at "machine speed," NATO must reflect on its AI and China strategies and adjust them accordingly. In essence, while China's AI momentum is formidable, NATO's legacy, infrastructure, and collaborative potential position it well to navigate this challenge. A blend of urgency, strategy, and partnership will determine the alliance's standing in the AI-driven global arena amidst this turbulent geopolitical landscape.


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[2] Zhou Lai, Jin Xiaowei, Zheng Yikai [周来,靳晓伟,郑益凯]. “Research on Combat Assistance Decision-making Based on Deep Reinforcement Learning” [基于深度强化学习的作 战辅助决策研究]. Aerospace Defense [空天防御], 2018

[3] Huang Zicai, He Chunyao, Yang Yuan. [黄子才,和春耀,杨元] “Intelligent Coastal Defense Construction” [智能化边海防建设]. Defense Technology Review [国防科技], June 2018

[4] Tang Runze, Zhang Chenglong, Li Linlin [汤润泽, 张承龙, 李林林]. “Application of Artificial Intelligence on Situation Assessment and Game Countermeasure in Unmanned Battlefield” [人工智能在无人战场态势预判与博弈对抗中的应用]. Beijing Institute of Electronic System Engineering [北京电子工程总体研究所], October 2020

[5] Zheng, Changxing, Zhao, Hui, & Yan, Ming. [郑昌兴, 赵 辉, 严 明] (2020). “Preliminary Thoughts on the Application of Artificial Intelligence in Cyberspace Operations” [关于人工智能在网络 空间作战应用的初步思考] Dual Use Technologies & Products [军民两用技术与产品], (440), June 2020.

[6] Liu, Xiaofeng, & Liu, Yangyue. [刘箫锋,刘杨钺] (2023). “Cyber Weaponization in Modern Political Warfare: Application and Response” [现代政治战中的网络武器化:应用与应对]. National Defense Technology [国防科技], 44(2), April 2023.

About the author

Sunny Cheung is a visiting fellow at the SNR Agora Institute in Johns Hopkins University. He specializes in Chinese politics, cross-strait relations, emerging technologies, and security studies. He is named a Global Leader by the McCain Institute in 2023. He testified before the US Congress, UK Parliament, and Taiwan Legislative Yuan. He received his M.A at the Johns Hopkins University SAIS with a Dean's scholarship.