China has a “stunning lead” over the West in most critical and emerging technologies, a security thinktank has found after tracking defence, space, energy and biotechnology.
China leads in 37 out of 44 critical and emerging technologies spanning defence, space, robotics, energy, the environment, biotechnology, artificial intelligence, advanced materials and quantum technology, according to the study by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI).
Funded by the US State Department, the study tracked the world’s most-cited scientific papers, which it said are the most likely to result in patents.
“Western democracies are losing the global technological competition, including the race for scientific and research breakthroughs,” the report said, pointing to the fact that the world’s top 10 research institutions are based in China.
This is despite the US leading global research in high-performance computing, quantum computing, small satellites and vaccines.
The report calls for governments to commit more resources to research to catch up with China, which has established a “stunning lead in high-impact research” under government programmes.
It also encourages democratic nations to collaborate more, create secure supply chains and “rapidly pursue a strategic critical technology step-up”.
ASPI is known for its critical reporting on China and is often target of counter attacks from Beijing.
“This institute has long been receiving funds from the US government and … is so imbued in ideological prejudice that it becomes an anti-China ‘vanguard’, which leads to serious doubt on its academic integrity,” a Foreign Ministry spokesperson said in 2020 in response to a question about an ASPI report on the influence of China’s Communist Party on Beijing’s communities abroad.
“A key area in which China excels is defence- and space-related technologies,” ASPI reported.
China has produced nearly half of the most high-impact research papers on advanced aircraft engines, including hypersonics in the last five years, according to the report, and it is home to seven of the world’s top 10 institutions researching the subject.
“China’s strides in nuclear-capable hypersonic missiles reportedly took US intelligence by surprise in August 2021,” the report said, referring to China’s surprise breakthrough in hypersonic missiles, which it said would have been identified earlier if China’s strong research had been detected.
The study identified the risks of knowledge monopolies, concluding that China is likely to achieve a monopoly in ten fields, including synthetic biology, where it produces one-third of all research, as well as electric batteries, 5G, and nano manufacturing.
The Chinese Academy of Sciences (CASS), a government research body, ranked first or second in most of the 44 technologies tracked.
In the fields of photonic sensors and quantum communication, China’s research strength could result in its “going dark” – evading the surveillance of western intelligence, including the so-called “five eyes” of Britain, US, Australia, Canada and New Zealand, the study said.
Knowledge gained overseas
The report tracked the movements of researchers and found that China has bolstered its research with knowledge gained overseas.
One-fifth of top Chinese researchers were trained in a “five eyes” country, the study said, recommending a visa screening programs to limit illegal technology transfers, and a focus on fostering international collaboration with security allies.
Australia’s universities have said they are complying with foreign influence laws designed to stop the illegal transfer of technology to China, but also noted international collaboration is an integral part of university research.