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China leads the world in tech research, could win the future, says think tank

US comes in second, rest of the world is a distant third in fields from biotech to batteries

Think tank the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) has published an update to its Critical Technology Tracker, and asserted that China has taken the lead in research on 37 of 44 critical or emerging technologies.

"Our research reveals that China has built the foundation 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," declared ASPI.

The tracker covers fields including defence, space, robotics, energy, the environment, biotechnology, artificial intelligence (AI), advanced materials, and quantum technology.

To build the tracker, ASPI collected and analyzed research papers published between 2018 and 2022 in its selected technology areas to determine the most cited ten percent of studies. H-index – a performance metric used for analyzing the impact of scholarly output – was also considered, as was the number of top-ranked research institutions in a country.

According to the think tank, China often produced more than five times as much high-impact research as its closest competitor. Within the 37 areas China led, it is close to being able to develop a monopoly in eight: nanoscale materials and manufacturing, coatings, advanced radiofrequency communication (including 5G and 6G), hydrogen and ammonia for power, supercapacitors, electric batteries, synthetic biology, and photonic sensors.

ASPI found the US is the second-most advanced source of research in the majority of the technologies, and took first in each of the areas China did not. These included high performance computing, advanced integrated circuit design and fabrication, natural language processing, quantum computing, vaccines and medical countermeasures, small satellites, and space launch systems.

China and the USA were well ahead of the next tier of countries – led by India and the UK along with South Korea, Germany, Australia, Italy and, less often, Japan.

ASPI also ranked institutions and universities. The Chinese Academy of Sciences was a particularly high performer, ranking in the top five in 27 of the 44 technologies. The Netherlands' Delft University of Technology did well in a number of quantum technologies. And members of the US's Big Tech grouping – namely Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Hewlett Packard and IBM – performed well in AI.

ASPI did consider the question of whether expertise in high-impact research translates to manufacturing output.

"This is an important caveat that readers should keep in mind, and it's one we point out in multiple places throughout the report," explained the authors, who noted that manufacturing capability lags research breakthroughs.

But when the Chinese Communist Party prioritizes and invests in an area, it can sort that out, ASPI opined. This is why, among its 23 policy recommendations, is a suggestion that nations consider sovereign wealth funds to provide venture capital and research funding, among other national strategies to improve their own capabilities.

"China's lead is the product of deliberate design and long-term policy planning, as repeatedly outlined by Xi Jinping and his predecessors," pointed out the researchers.

The think tank is clear about why China's lead is a problem. In the short term, it's not ideal to have one or two countries dominate new and emerging industries – if for no other reason than to ensure resilient supply chains.

In the long term, it could lead to a shift – not just of technology development, but also global power and influence – to China, which ASPI calls "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 scrutinized by independent civil society and media."

The think tank asserts that while China is in front in so many areas, other countries should "take stock of their combined and complementary strengths."

"When added up, they have the aggregate lead in many technology areas," noted ASPI.

Finding a way to make sure the other countries work together to counter China's lead is another matter entirely. ®

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