China's lead in critical tech research 'stunning'

China leads research in 37 of 44 critical technology fields tracked by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), including artificial intelligence, advanced materials, and key quantum areas.

China's lead is also pronounced in research spanning defense, space, robotics, energy, the environment, and biotechnology, a new study by ASPI found. Only seven critical research areas are led by a democratic country, which is the US in all cases.

"Western democracies are losing the global technological competition, including the race for scientific and research breakthroughs, and the ability to retain global talent," ASPI said.

These were "crucial ingredients that underpin the development and control of the world's most important technologies, including those that don't yet exist," it noted.

Meanwhile, China had built the foundations to position itself as the world's leading science and technology superpower, according to the report.

"For some technologies, all of the world's top 10 leading research institutions are based in China and collectively generating nine times more high-impact research papers than the second-ranked country," ASPI said.

It found China's "sometimes stunning" lead in high-impact research across the most critical and emerging technology sectors.

Authoritarian stranglehold

The report shows a high risk of a Chinese monopoly in eight critical technologies, including electric batteries and high-speed communications such as 5G and 6G.

Conversely, none of the areas are at high risk of being monopolized by the US, although it leads the research in semiconductors, high-performance computing, and advanced integrated circuit design and fabrication.

American strengths also include vaccines and quantum computing – even though China maintains the lead in post-quantum cryptography, quantum communications, and quantum sensors.

Importing talent and knowledge bolsters China's efforts, according to ASPI. A quarter of its high-impact papers were authored by researchers with postgraduate training in the US (9.8%), the UK (7.8%), Canada (3.9%), the EU (2%), and Japan (2%).

"Naturally, manufacturing capability lags research breakthroughs," ASPI said, noting "reliability problems" Chinese aircraft engines still face despite China's leading research in the field.

However, China "appears to be making strides" to overcome obstacles that are holding it back, the report said.

"Unchecked, this could shift not just technological development and control but global power and influence to an authoritarian state," it warned.

It could mean emerging, critical, and military technologies would face less public scrutiny while China would gain a "stranglehold" on global supply chains.

Collective strengths

The report's authors suggested that like-minded democracies should counter China's growing technological prowess by deepening collaboration.

Smaller powerhouses include India and the UK, both of which claim a place among the top five countries in 29 of the 44 technologies, followed by South Korea with 20, and Germany with 17.

When taken as a whole, the EU beats China and the US in four research areas and ranks in the top five of all critical technology fields tracked by ASPI.

"While China is in front, it's important for democracies to take stock of the power of their potential aggregate lead and the collective strengths of regions and groupings," the report said.

It noted technology visas, research grants between allies, and “friend-shoring” – an idea manufacturing and sourcing should take place between countries with shared values – as possible solutions.

Other measures could include restructured tax systems that would divert private capital to venture capital and new public-private partnerships, according to the study’s authors.

They also proposed the Five Eyes grouping of countries (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the US, and the UK) should partner with Japan and build an analytical intelligence center focused on China and technology.

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