China rising as next tech superpower

China has built foundations to position itself as the world’s leading science and technology superpower, with its global lead now extending to 37 out of 44 technologies tracked by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI).

This means that only seven of the 44 analysed technologies are currently led by a democratic country, and that country in all instances is the US.

ASPI’s Critical Technology Tracker, which covers a range of crucial technology fields spanning defence, space, robotics, artificial intelligence (AI) and key quantum tech, among others, has found that the world’s top 10 leading research institutions were currently based in China. Collectively, ASPI said, these institutions generated nine times more high-impact research papers than the second-ranked country, the US, in a number of cases.

On top of that, China also ranked high in terms of its ability to attract and retain global talent and knowledge import, with one-fifth of its papers being now authored by researchers with postgraduate training in a Five-Eyes country (US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand).

The US, which came second in the majority of 44 technologies tracked by the ASPI, managed to retain its leading positions in areas such as high-performance computing, quantum computing and vaccines.

The data also found that there was a “large gap between China and the US, as the leading two countries, and everyone else”.

According to the report, China’s overall research lead meant it had set itself up not only to excel in current technological development in almost all sectors, but also in future technologies that did not yet exist.

“Unchecked, this could shift not just technological development and control but global power and influence to an authoritarian state where the development, testing and application of emerging, critical and military technologies isn’t open and transparent and where it can’t be scrutinised by independent civil society and media,” the report said.

“Such risks are exacerbated because of the willingness of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to use coercive techniques outside of the global rules-based order to punish governments and businesses, including withholding the supply of critical technologies.”

The report serves as a “wake-up call for democratic nations”, the paper said, which will need to work both collaboratively and individually to catch up with China and pay more attention to the current world’s centre of technological innovation and strategic competition, the Indo-Pacific.

According to the report, urgent policy changes, increased investment, and global collaboration are needed across many countries to close the enormous and widening gap.

One of ASPI’s recommendations encouraged Five-Eyes countries, along with Japan, to build an intelligence analytical centre focused on China and technology, starting with open-source intelligence.

Who else is still in the game?

Apart from China and the US, also the UK and India were still in the race to become “the next important technological powerhouse”, with both countries claiming a place in the top five countries in 29 of the 44 technologies.

South Korea and Germany followed closely behind, appearing in the top five countries in 20 and 17 technologies, respectively.

At the same time, Australia was in the top five for nine technologies, followed closely by Italy (seven technologies), Iran (six), Japan (four) and Canada (four).

Russia, Singapore, Saudi Arabia, France, Malaysia and the Netherlands were in the top five for one or two technologies and a number of other countries, including Spain and Turkey, regularly made the top 10 countries but were not in the top five.

As far as the organisations were concerned, there were several leading universities that were dominating the pack, according to the report. These included the University of California, the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the Indian Institute of Technology, Nanyang Technological University (NTU Singapore), the University of Science and Technology China, and a variety of national labs in the US (such as the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory).

On top of that, the Chinese Academy of Sciences was a particularly high performer, ranking in the top 5 in 27 of the 44 technologies tracked by the Critical Technology Tracker. Comprising 116 institutes (which gives it a unique advantage over other organisations), it excelled in energy and environment technologies, advanced materials and in a range of quantum, defence and AI technologies, including advanced data analytics, machine learning, quantum sensors, advanced robotics and small satellites.

However, the US was still home to a number of companies well represented across the AI category. These include Google (first in natural language processing), Microsoft (sixth by H-index and tenth by ‘highly cited’ in natural language processing), Facebook (14th by H-index in natural language processing), Hewlett Packard Enterprise (14th by H-index in high-performance computing) and IBM (Switzerland and US arms both tying at the 11th place with other institutions by H-index in AI algorithms and hardware accelerators).