China is winning the technological race with the West, and is well on its way to becoming the world's leading technology superpower, according to a new report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI).
When ASPI tracked 44 critical technologies, it found that China was "further ahead in more areas than has been realized." More precisely, China was the leading country in 37 of the 44 technologies that ASPI tracked, with the United States coming in second and everyone else way behind. The US led the world only in the remaining seven technologies, including the design and development of advanced semiconductor devices, high performance computing, quantum computing and vaccines. The report noted:
"Our research reveals that China has built the foundations to position itself as the world's leading science and technology superpower, by establishing a sometimes stunning lead in high-impact research across the majority of critical and emerging technology domains."
Because of China's leading research position, China 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 continued.
"[F]or some technologies, all of the world's top 10 leading research institutions are based in China and are collectively generating nine times more high-impact research papers than the second-ranked country (most often the US). Notably, the Chinese Academy of Sciences ranks highly (and often first or second) across many of the 44 technologies included in the Critical Technology Tracker."
The findings should not come as a surprise. China has made no secret of its ambition to become, by 2049, the world's greatest power, surpassing the US as the economic, technological, political and military leader of the world. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has been planning and operating in line with those ambitions for decades.
In 2015, China set in motion the 10-year "Made in China 2025" plan, which aimed to make China a global technological leader by accelerating innovations in ten strategic areas, among them advanced robotics and artificial intelligence, electric cars and other new energy vehicles, next-generation information technology and telecommunications, emerging bio-medicine, new materials, aerospace engineering and agricultural technology.
In March 2021, in its most recent Five-Year Plan for 2021-2025, the CCP made it clear that by 2035, China's economic, scientific, technological and overall national strength was expected to "leap dramatically" and achieve major breakthroughs in "key and core technologies."
The new ASPI report confirms that China is proceeding according to its own publicly-stated ambitions.
China's progress, however, has also relied on an array of illicit methods, including vast intellectual property theft and cyber espionage.
In July 2020, FBI Director Christopher Wray said that Chinese theft of US intellectual and other property is happening on "a scale so massive that it represents one of the largest transfers of wealth in human history."
"... China uses a diverse range of sophisticated techniques—everything from cyber intrusions to corrupting trusted insiders. They've even engaged in outright physical theft. And they've pioneered an expansive approach to stealing innovation through a wide range of actors—including not just Chinese intelligence services but state-owned enterprises, ostensibly private companies, certain kinds of graduate students and researchers, and a whole variety of other actors working on their behalf."
"We've seen the regional bureaus of China's MSS -- their Ministry of State Security -- key in specifically on the innovation of certain Western companies it wants to ransack. And I'm talking about companies everywhere from big cities to small towns -- from Fortune 100s to start-ups, folks that focus on everything from aviation, to AI, to pharma. We've even caught people affiliated with Chinese companies out in the U.S. heartland, sneaking into fields to dig up proprietary, genetically modified seeds, which would have cost them nearly a decade and billions in research to develop themselves."
Additionally, China has collaborated widely with Western researchers to gain knowledge. An investigative report by 11 European media outlets, known as the China Science Investigation, collected an astounding 353,000 scientific collaborations between Europe and China and found that, of these, 2,994 had taken place with the Chinese military, with scientists sharing militarily sensitive knowledge with the Chinese army on a "large scale."
A particularly disturbing technological lead is the leap China has made in the military and space sectors. The ASPI report points out that China's research interests and performance in military and space sectors are particularly notable, including an advanced hypersonic missile that China tested, to the US military's surprise. China, it turns out, houses seven of the world's top 10 research institutions focused on the field of hypersonics.
"The world was shocked in October 2021 when it was revealed in media reporting that the PRC had tested a nuclear-capable hypersonic glide vehicle. However, that shouldn't have been a huge surprise, given that China has a 48% share of the world's most high-impact research on 'advanced aircraft engines (including hypersonics)... Building a world-dominating lead in these distinct but interrelated research fields may have been a happy coincidence for the PRC, but it was more likely to have resulted from a well-laid strategy, spanning decades, that helped support the development of hypersonic vehicle test-flights."
The overriding importance of technology for the Chinese Communist Party is reflected in the fact that Chinese President Xi Jinping has filled 40% of the CCP Central Committee –- the institution that decides China's major policies -- with officials who have backgrounds and experience in aerospace, artificial intelligence and other critical technological areas. One third of the CCP's Politburo – the decision-making body of the CCP – consists of members with a background in science and technology.
China's challenge to the US and the West is critical, the ASPI study emphasizes. China is leading in most fields. If the US and other Western countries wish to check China's rise, they will have to make a far more serious effort to prioritize and invest in research and technology, not to mention doubling down on preventing more theft of technology and intellectual property.
China becoming the world's technological superpower is growing ever more likely -- which means that China could control the world's most critical supply not only of technology but also its components and parts.
Already now, according to ASPI, there is a high risk of China achieving a monopoly in eight critical technologies, including nanoscale materials and manufacturing, advanced radiofrequency communications (including 5G and 6G), hydrogen and ammonia for power, electric batteries, and synthetic biology.
Without urgent action on the part of the West, the world will soon be run by China.
John Richardson is a researcher based in the United States.