The Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) on Thursday launched a project called the Critical Technology Tracker, which collects and visualizes data representing worldwide progress on “crucial technology fields spanning defense, space, robotics, energy, the environment, biotechnology, artificial intelligence, advanced materials and key quantum technology areas.”
At the time of its inception, the Critical Technology Tracker included 44 such technologies, and China was the world leader in 37 of them.
“Western democracies are losing the global technological competition, including the race for scientific and research breakthroughs, and the ability to retain global talent—crucial ingredients that underpin the development and control of the world’s most important technologies, including those that don’t yet exist,” ASPI warned.
“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,” the Institute said.
According to the inaugural Critical Technology Tracker report, the United States is usually in second place behind China but, in some cases, it is a rather distant second. ASPI found some fields where all of the world’s top-ten research institutes are in China, and together they produce nine times more “high-impact research papers” than the runner-up United States.
Perhaps most disturbingly, ASPI said China often achieves its high technology lead by poaching talent from the U.S. and the other “Five Eyes” countries – Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom.
ASPI said it created the Critical Technology Tracker to put Western policymakers on alert and to avoid further nasty surprises like China demonstrating far more advanced hypersonic missile capabilities than U.S. intelligence expected. In August 2021, China shocked American intel agencies by launching a nuclear-capable hypersonic missile that circled the world twice in low orbit before landing within 25 miles of its test target.
The United States does hold a lead over China in a few areas, including “high performance computer, quantum computing, and vaccines.”
As for the rest of the world, ASPI found a “small second-tier group of countries led by India and the U.K.” well behind America and China, with occasional guest appearances in the second tier by countries that excel at particular fields of research, like South Korea, Germany, Australia, and Italy.
Australia, for example, is a standout in fields such as cybersecurity, mineral extraction, and blockchains. ASPI hinted at a bit of disappointment that once-mighty Japan rarely makes it into the second tier these days.
“These findings should be a wake-up call for democratic nations, who must rapidly pursue a strategic critical technology step-up,” the report’s authors declared.
ASPI envisioned the U.S. putting together a free-world team of high technology research, reasoning that since all of the second-tier nations and highly-specialized occasional tech leaders are U.S. allies, they should be willing to aggregate their research and create partnerships that can best the Chinese.
ASPI cited free-world alliances like the AUKUS pact between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States as helpful examples. On the plus side, China clearly hates and fears AUKUS but, unfortunately, it has proven irritating to Western nations that are not members.
“Partners and allies need to step up and seriously consider things such as sovereign wealth funds at 0.5%–0.7% of gross national income providing venture capital, research and scale-up funding, with a sizable portion reserved for high-risk, high-reward ‘moonshots,’” ASPI advised.
Further recommendations touched delicately on the need for Western countries – and, to be honest, ASPI really seems to be shouting at the United States here – to reform their innovation-killing tax structures, extend more research and development grants to allied nations, and tighten up their hideous education systems.
It is difficult to imagine any sober observer looking at the current state of U.S. education and seeing a muscular, results-oriented system ready for a heavyweight technology bout with China.
ASPI did not offer concrete examples of “moonshots,” but describing them as “high-risk, high-reward” implies such projects would be focused on developing practical technologies that could be implemented quickly with major near-term benefits. The Critical Technology Tracker report recommended looking for “moonshot” opportunities in the fields of “economic security, intelligence, national security, and defense,” plus “climate, energy, and the environment.”
The authors were also quite taken with the CHIPS Act, a legislative effort to increase American semiconductor chip manufacturing. ASPI did not dig into the CHIPS Act in detail or address concerns that it might amount to little more than another load of corporate welfare if the funds are not administered and used carefully, but the Institute liked the idea of passing technology legislation that could funnel investment dollars into critical technology fields while removing regulatory hurdles.
The Critical Technology Tracker included an ominous warning that China would almost certainly use its lead in “future technologies” for strategic and political leverage, so the race for leadership in cutting-edge technologies is about much more than simply claiming bragging rights as the first nation to develop robot butlers.
The authors warned that China’s research lead “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 scrutinized by independent civil society and media.”
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