"I'm sure there are lots of manufacturers in China who are focused on crushing the U.S.," said Matt Beane, a robotics researcher and fellow at the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy. "But it seems like China's whole goal is to become self-sufficient."
A new International Federation of Robots report shows that China will likely represent 40 percent of the total worldwide sales for robots by 2019, an increase from 27 percent in 2015.
China's steady growth in spending on robotics has even caught the eye of entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban. In an open letter to President Donald Trump last December, he said the United States should invest $100 billion into the robotics industry in order to compete with China.
"We have to win the robotics race. We are not even close right now," Cuban wrote.
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But many of these robots are ones produced elsewhere that Chinese companies purchase. The country would now like to flip the script and produce in country more of the industrial robots it needs in a variety of economic sectors. By 2020 the government wants more than 50 percent of the total robotics sales volume to be filled by robots made in China by Chinese companies.
Producing robots in-house, so to speak, is where China is looking to outpace America. Beane noted that China has "never had this character of deliberately going toe-to-toe with another global power." But what they do have is a desire to look toward the future by investing billions of dollars in robotics and complementary technologies, like artificial intelligence, in order to not rely on other nations to outfit their factories.
"China will throw tons of money toward [robotics] that we will not," Beane said. "They're looking to play a long game where, through steady investment, they make it less and less likely that countries that act impulsively can catch up."
Robots and automation are priorities in China, where salaries have increased more than 100 percent over the last 10 years while the national labor force has been shrinking. With industrial robots, Chinese companies hope to keep innovating while cutting costs. Signs of this shift are already present. Foxconn, a leading supplier of Apple iPhones, replaced 60,000 workers with robots in just one of its Chinese factories last year.
"The long-term goal in China is to transform it from a low-cost labor source to being a high-tech labor source," said Frank Tobe, publisher of the Robot Report in California. "That's a major technology transformation, and they're doing it."
As Tobe wrote in a rundown of the Made in 2025 plan, China wants to "overtake Germany, Japan, and the U.S. in terms of manufacturing sophistication by 2049." The Made in China 2025 plan helps out by offering subsidies, low-interest loans and rent-free land to Chinese companies. Consider what Guangdong, just one Chinese province, is doing: offering almost $140 billion in subsidies to about 2,000 local companies, including robotics firms.