China outpacing US in critical tech research ‘should be a wake up call’: report

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Flag of China on a computer binary codes falling from the top and fading away. (Getty images)

WASHINGTON — China is outpacing the US and other democratic nations in 37 out of 44 technology research areas considered advanced and critical, setting the stage for potentially devastating immediate and long-term consequences if western nations don’t “wake up,” according to a think tank’s latest findings. 

In a new report from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), the US comes second to China in the majority of critical technology research areas examined, like artificial intelligence, robotics, biotechnology and quantum technology and specifically in defense and space-related technologies. The report uses ASPI’s new Critical Technology Tracker, a tool that lets users track 44 technologies considered “foundational” for national security, economies and more areas.

“These findings should be a wake-up call for democratic nations, who must rapidly pursue a strategic critical technology step-up,” according to the report. “Governments around the world should work both collaboratively and individually to catch up to China and, more broadly, they must pay greater attention to the world’s centre of technological innovation and strategic competition: the Indo-Pacific.”

ASPI’s policy brief follows similar reports from other think tanks, like the Special Competitive Studies Project’s September 2022 report saying the US is losing its technological dominance and commercial data company Govini’s analysis from last year saying that, despite the Defense Department’s investments seemingly skyrocketing in advanced technologies, the US still isn’t investing nearly enough in order to outpace China.

In a statement to Breaking Defense, Govini CEO Tara Murphy Dougherty said the ASPI report reveals an “alarming fact” that the western world is falling behind China and that the US’s position in the critical technologies race “is much worse than what many have been assuming.”

“To close, and surpass, the technological gap China is creating, the US not only needs to invest more, but also harness the power of commercial data to inform strategic investments to expel foreign influence and adversarial capital from our industrial base,” she added. “Only then can we begin to find America’s edge in the fight against China.”

According to ASPI’s report, China’s global dominance in technology research can set up potential short and long-term implications.

“In the long term, China’s leading research position means that it has set itself up to excel not just in current technological development in almost all sectors, but in future technologies that don’t yet exist…,” the report says.

“In the more immediate term, that lead — coupled with successful strategies for translating research breakthroughs to commercial systems and products that are fed into an efficient manufacturing base — could allow China to gain a stranglehold on the global supply of certain critical technologies,” the report says. 

The US currently leads in quantum computing research, but China is closely following by leading in post-quantum cryptography, quantum communications and quantum sensors research, according to the Critical Technology Tracker. In artificial intelligence, the US is leading in advanced integrated circuit design, language processing and high-performance computing, but China holds a lead on advanced radiofrequency communications like 5G and 6G, among several other areas. China is also outpacing the US in all energy and environment technology research areas and is leading in technologies like drones, autonomous systems and hypersonics. 

ASPI made a total of 23 recommendations in its report, calling for increased investments in areas like research and development, talent development and the production of intelligence strategies, while also advocating for governments to come up with more creative policy ideas and more collaboration between partners and allies. 

“It’s important to emphasise that research excellence isn’t a tap that can be turned on or off at will,” the report says. “Substantial time is needed to establish and develop research excellence to the point where the research is the best in the world, in terms of being highly innovative and genuinely breaking new ground. Similarly, decades of investment can be destroyed by turning off funding in response to short-term pressures.”

In one of the recommendations, ASPI urges Five Eyes partners and Japan to build a dedicated China technology collection and analysis center that will “pool resources, maximise information sharing and promote innovation in selected critical technology areas.” 

“Starting the initiative by building up new multi-government open-source capabilities also offers governments the space and opportunity to deepen collaboration with partners in a more unclassified environment in which lessons learned, tradecraft and innovations (such as research and big-data practices) can be shared before pulling in classified programs of work into the centre,” according to the report. 

ASPI also says a new major piece of technology legislation, similar to the US’s Creating Helpful Incentives to Produce Semiconductors and Science Act, should be introduced by partners and allies that addresses many of the policy recommendations outlined in the report. 

“The costs of catching up will be significant, but the costs of inaction could be far greater,” according to the report. 

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