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C3S Dialogue: China and Robotics

C3S Paper No. 0063/2016

The following is a dialogue conducted by C3S members from May 2- May 6 2016. The theme revolved around the article “China’s robot army set to surge” by Steve Johnson in the Financial Times:

Mr. K. Subramanian

Former Joint Secretary (Retd.)

Ministry of Finance, Government of India.


Roboticisation on a massive scale is fraught with serious consequences within China and in relation to its external trade.

Mr.Sivaraman IAS (Retd.),

Former Revenue Secretary, Ministry of Finance

Government of India.


China is spending huge amounts on research and development. There is no doubt that machines will replace human labour eventually in many areas in exchange for drudgery at the factory level.

One of the reasons for slow employment growth in India is our industry is also replacing men by robots. In fact we make robots and export them .One has seen them in operation in the U.S in a factory in Chicago owned by an Indian company. It was surprising to see that as early as 2002 India had the ability to manufacture robots and export them. However one opines that we have not made any major progress in robotics.

Mr. T.V. Krishnamurthy

Management Professional, Chennai.


This was not unexpected when manufacturing in large scale transits from electrical goods and construction material to printed Integrated circuits, automobiles , other high end merchandise and consumer goods. China’s major exports are still mid and low segment manufacturing in the above segments, which is very labor intensive but fraught with quality inconsistencies. Being very labor intensive it helped China leapfrog in scale and volume besides cutting down cost of manufacture. One refers to manufacturing from giant factories of China.

On the other hand, the giant U.S companies manufacturing in China have their own fully imported capital equipments and very advanced robots, mainly made in Japan, Germany and U.S.A.

The decision of the Communist party to focus on mid and lower segment of manufacturing in gigantic scale is really very well thought of at least on three grounds:

  1. The global demand for these items which are consumables in nature.

  2. The cost and price advantage, that is, lower capital costs.

  3. Last but the most important – that it maintained a very great level of social harmony with employment for many hundreds of millions of their citizens.

Now in so far as robotics are concerned both Japan and Taiwan   have been using robotic technologies in their manufacturing plants very successfully from the late 1970s till date with evolving sophistication which assures almost 99% defect free manufacturing.

In one’s opinion, if China is applying itself very seriously to robotic technology it will mean the following:

  1. That there is a deliberate medium to long term plan to manufacture goods that are more sophisticated and have greater technology flair. Only few countries could boast of this

  2. That the remote defense equipments like drones and remote managed items in space are completely robotic managed and hence the scale of sophistication of their defense equipments which will directly employ robots will lead to paradigm shift in their offensive and defensive capabilities.

  3. That the Chinese see potential for huge exports for sophisticated defense and non defense equipments including automobiles parts and electronics in high and very high end segments, including driverless cars.

  4. Lastly the Chinese will not be irrational to employ robotics to replace humans in low technology areas as that will push up costs besides creating social unrest.

Far reaching inventions and mind boggling advancements are happening in robotics in the United States, which has a clear lead of some hundred years compared to other countries. These are mainly emerging from famous universities like MIT, Stanford and others. There are hundreds of thousands of Chinese and Indian students who are pursuing robotics in these universities in the last decade or so. A number of Chinese students who are sponsored by the state in indirect ways have been returning and will return to mainland China after gaining experience in real life in robotics. These Chinese are privileged citizens in nation building and their pay and perquisites are not comparable with other Chinese citizens.

The great Indian brains in robotics have been staying back and will stay back in the U.S which will benefit ultimately. In fact the famous Alan Musk of Tesla car and Space X are employing huge number of Indians who are U.S citizens. Likewise the driverless project of Google which is actually running in Mountain View areas is employing a large number of Indian engineers, not necessarily citizens. In places like Chicago, the U.S is granting green cards to Indians with just 2 to 3 years stay if they are Ph.Ds with research in robotics. They are also liberally funding the green field ventures of these Indians as Government sponsored V C funding.

Look at how both China and the U.S are planning their future. China is communist for name sake for wielding power and discipline in the nation. Otherwise it is the best clone of the U.S in very many things. Excellent copycats. The goals of these two nations are same but their means are different.

Cmde. R. S. Vasan IN (Retd.)

Director, C3S.


As brought out in news reports, it is clear that China has embarked on a programme to robotise major operations. The very effort to have more robot-centric manufacturing and other processes will have spinoffs in terms of value addition in many other sectors.  The social challenges will need to be managed as the surplus manpower would need to be used for other tasks. It can also be seen as releasing the captive man power from such mundane tasks and employ them in other areas to meet the needs of the world’s markets.  If China already meets more than a quarter of the world’s needs as the manufacturing hub, it will now work to increase that share by employing robotics not just in the low spectrum products but also in the high technology areas where precision and quality cannot be compromised. China would also like to remove the tag of “cheap products”   that is witnessed in the destination markets including in India.

As brought out by some of the other members of C3S, the Chinese who study abroad do return in large numbers and help to add to the technological innovations. It is common knowledge that many of the high end technology products are reverse engineered and improved up on to bring out better models of the original. This is one area of strength and also an area of weakness when assessing the Chinese technological prowess.

So it is clear that robots will play an increasing role in the manufacturing thrust and in many other high technology areas. In the back drop of the so-called ageing populations of China, Europe and the West, robots will come in a big way to aid nations to sustain their economic growth. India which is set to gain from the demographic dividend cannot remain complacent and needs to see how to remain ahead in robotics by investing in the related fields.

Asma Masood

Research Officer, C3S.

Asma Masood

Robotics – Opportunities, Challenges and the Future in India, By Vishal Makhija, The Tech Panda. (Click on link to read article)

Robotics industries in India must reinvigorate themselves, as the clock is ticking in the race for economic prowess in the Asian century. The article referred to above talks about how there is dearth of suitable engineering teaching facilities in the field of robotics in India, and lack of enough trained faculties. There is also the problem of high cost of importing hardware.

India can adopt a four pronged strategy:

  1. Setup Special Economic Zones devoted to robotics technology manufacturing in India, allowing external FDI.

  2. Give attractive incentives to Indians trained in robotics in developed countries to return home and galvanize the robotics industry here.

  3. Make robotics a mandatory basic subject in engineering colleges, as this field has applications in almost every industrial sector.

  4. Certain private schools in Chennai (Tamil Nadu state, South India) are teaching robotics to students as young as those in 6th standard. It will be interesting if all schools could imbibe a culture of robotics education. For those institutions who cannot afford it practically, at least it must be taught theoretically, so that the interest of the next generation is kindled.

India is not part of the OBOR or MSR, which may involve robotics in manufacturing in a big way. Nevertheless Delhi must continue to increase its robotics technology expertise and capability, which will serve to oil its technological nuts and bolts in the coming decades.

(All views expressed in this dialogue are the members’ own.)

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