China leads US in global competition for key emerging technology, study says

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SYDNEY (Reuters) – China has a “stunning lead” in 37 out of 44 critical and emerging technologies as Western democracies lose a global competition for research output, a security think tank said after tracking defence, space, energy and biotechnology.

The Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) said its study showed that, in some fields, all of the world’s top 10 research institutions are based in China.

The study, funded by the United States State Department, found the United States was often second-ranked, although it led global research in high-performance computing, quantum computing, small satellites and vaccines.

“Western democracies are losing the global technological competition, including the race for scientific and research breakthroughs,” the report said, urging greater research investment by governments.

China had established a “stunning lead in high-impact research” under government programs.

The report called for democratic nations to collaborate more often to create secure supply chains and “rapidly pursue a strategic critical technology step-up”.

ASPI tracked the most-cited scientific papers, which it said are the most likely to result in patents. China’s surprise breakthrough in hypersonic missiles in 2021 would have been identified earlier if China’s strong research had been detected, it said.

“Over the past five years, China generated 48.49% of the world’s high-impact research papers into advanced aircraft engines, including hypersonics, and it hosts seven of the world’s top 10 research institutions,” it said.

In the fields of photonic sensors and quantum communication, China’s research strength could result in it “going dark” to the surveillance of western intelligence, including the “Five Eyes” of Britain, United States, Australia, Canada and New Zealand, it said.

National talent flows of researchers were also tracked and monopoly risks were identified.

China was likely to emerge with a monopoly in 10 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, a government research body, ranked first or second in most of the 44 technologies tracked, which spanned defence, space, robotics, energy, the environment, biotechnology, artificial intelligence (AI), advanced materials and quantum technology.

China was bolstering its research with knowledge gained overseas, and the data showed one-fifth of the top Chinese researchers were trained in a Five Eyes country, it said.

The study recommended visa screening programs to limit illegal technology transfers and instead favour 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.

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