What Drives China's Innovation Efforts in the Science and Technology Fields?

Posted February 7, 2023

China leads the world in papers published and patents filed, and the country's research and development (R&D) expenditures are second only to the United States. A new paper by Ph.D. student Daniel Aum and Professor Fei-Ling Wang, both of the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs, examines what drives China's innovation efforts in science and technology. They propose a new theory of “creative ambition" to help explain China’s motivations. 

"If decision-makers — both in Washington and Beijing, as well as around the world — gain a firmer grasp of what compels China's innovation efforts, they may be better able to shape [China’s] policy and investment decisions," the researchers wrote.  

Aum and Wang first hypothesized that China's efforts to innovate are defensive in response to external national security threats, including from the military, economic, and diplomatic domains. Their work builds on the original creative insecurity theory established by Associate Professor Mark Zachary Taylor in the School of Public Policy. Taylor's theory counts weighted patent citations to measure innovation outputs in times of threat. 

"This paper seeks, however, to assess whether creative insecurity also explains inputs, measured by changes in [China's] innovation policies and R&D expenditures," the researchers wrote. "Assessing inputs is a more direct way to test the threat-response relationship: doing so allows a closer look at a country's reactions to the balance of internal and external threats rather than solely the results of the innovation efforts." 

Aum and Wang found the results of their study were mixed. While China increased its push for innovation when it faced more significant external threats than internal threats, the country also did so when the external threats dissipated. So, the researchers proposed the complementary theory of creative ambition, asserting that China may also pursue innovation to exert greater global power and influence. Depending on the threats China perceives from the rest of the world, the country's innovation investments could be inspired by creative insecurity, creative ambition, or both in tandem. 

One example of China's creative ambition is its Strategic Emerging Industries program, Aum said. Launched in 2010, the program focuses on 20 emerging industries, including next-generation information technology, biotechnology, and high-end machinery. 

"By focusing on areas where there were no entrenched incumbents, China has the opportunity to bypass legacy systems and assume the lead in select emerging technology industries," Aum said. 

The theory of creative ambition is an essential addition to the original creative insecurity theory because science and technology advancements affect so much internationally, "including trade, the balance of power, and alliances," the researchers wrote. By understanding which force is driving China at which time, other countries can alter their behavior toward China to influence its innovation efforts and the risks and rewards that come with it.  

While Wang believes the creative ambition hypothesis reveals something positive about international relations — competing countries drive human progress — he also says it matters who is leading the race. 

“Innovative technologies in the ‘right hand’ or the ‘wrong hand’ mean something very different to one specific nation and to all nations,” he said. “Regarding the U.S.-China competition, the U.S. probably should have more creative ambition of its own, such as more attention to its industrial policy, R&D investment, and supply chain security.”  

"Innovation is one of the key frontiers in the U.S.-China competition," Aum agreed. "Both countries seem driven by a mix of creative insecurity and creative ambition to stay ahead of the innovation curve. The United States wants to maintain its global leadership role. China wants to claim the apex position or at least be more resistant to U.S. influence. The end of the story is not predetermined. Innovation will contribute to each nation's capabilities in many domains, from engineering and computer science to economics and the military. The cutting-edge research that Georgia Tech students and faculty produce will contribute to those fields — and also to the direction of geopolitics." 

"Insecurity and Ambition: Dual Drivers of Chinese Innovation?" was published in Defense and Peace Economics in December 2022. It is available at: https://doi.org/10.1080/10242694.2022.2155903


Related Media

Contact For More Information

Di Minardi