Why the US should be concerned about China’s quantum developments

There’s no doubt that quantum technology has the power to revolutionize many aspects of life. It might not be what Quantum Leap made it seem, but from finance to computing and cryptography to new drug discoveries, this field of technology holds endless possibilities. It comes as no surprise then that countries such as China, Russia, and the US have dedicated quantum programs to advance their progress further and faster than ever.

In recent times, China has gained the advantage in terms of quantum research. Although some in scientific and political circles dismiss China’s recent progress, there is growing concern over China’s quantum domination.

The US is especially worried about recent news of China’s quantum computing developments. As recently as the turn of the 21st century, the US was well ahead of China in quantum technology. However, reduced federal funding for quantum research between 2005 and 2015 is thought to be the reason for a reversal of power.

What is quantum computing?

The primary concern is China’s capability to develop a quantum computer that could crack the United States’ most secure codes. Then there’s possible advancements in the Chinese military and the country’s industrial capacities outpacing the US.

Let’s take a step back to January 2023 for a moment. Japan and the Netherlands, two of the top manufacturers of equipment for the fabrication of semiconductors, agreed to enforce the semiconductor export constraints on China set by the United States in October 2022. Although the agreement was only made in principle, it stonewalled China’s advancement of semiconductors and impeded the country’s drive for high-tech self-sufficiency.

Following the restrictions on semiconductors, the Commerce Department shifted its focus towards the next cutting-edge technology it perceives as a potential weapon in the hands of China: quantum computing. Controls on the export of quantum computing equipment, the offering of cloud services to Chinese entities, and error correction software are positioned to become the next battleground in the technological conflict between the United States and China.

In September 2022, U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan outlined the policy to “protect its advantage over China.” He emphasized the need for the United States to maintain a substantial lead over competitors, particularly China, and proposed the implementation of export controls. The aim was to preserve a significant advantage in critical areas such as quantum computing. Without such an advantage, it could potentially grant China military and economic benefits, including the development of cyber weapons and accelerated drug discovery. Consequently, the enforcement of comprehensive independent export controls on China were introduced.

But these constraints have not slowed down China’s emergence as a quantum mechanics superpower. Today, experts have cautioned that the emergence of a powerful quantum computer could render current encryption methods ineffective. In response, President Joe Biden issued a national security memorandum, mandating federal agencies to transition to post-quantum cryptography by 2035. The objective is to ensure that the United States stays ahead in the realm of cryptography and maintains robust security measures in the face of potential quantum computing advancements.

The implications of China’s emergence in the quantum computing field could be far-reaching. The threat to National Security is the number one concern. Quantum computing could potentially break encryption algorithms that safeguard classified information and secure communications. If China develops powerful quantum computers capable of cracking encryption, which some say it already has, it could pose a significant threat to U.S. intelligence and military operations.

There is also the economic side of the table. Quantum computing is expected to have a profound impact on industries and economies worldwide. It could provide a competitive edge in areas like finance, logistics, and advanced manufacturing. If China leads in quantum computing, it could gain a significant advantage in these sectors, potentially impacting the U.S. economy and job market.

To combat the national threat, the US must accelerate its quantum program. It must focus on industry participation, policy actions, and near-term defense. Although funding has been cut, $1.3 billion of federal funding was authorized in 2019 across the span of five years. Its goal? To invest in quantum development and research. Most of this money goes to academic universities and national laboratories to research and develop quantum test beds, quantum curricula, and build a quantum workforce.

However, this strategy has some fundamentally flawed assumptions:

  1. The US assumes it has lots of time to explore and develop its quantum program.
  2. The US assumes its independent academic organizations and national laboratories can advance quantum technology at the same pace, or ever exceed, that of China.

In China, meanwhile, quantum physicist Jian-Wei Pan leads the country’s quantum program. In turn, it’s managed by a co-ordinated orchestra of government, academic, and industry partners. As well as its streamlined program, China has an annual budget that is estimated to be in the billions of dollars, supported by the Chinese Communist Party.

Right now, the US is playing catch up to China in quantum mechanics. The country requires urgent new strategy methods to close the gap and usher in a new quantum era. But, until serious changes are made, China will continue to be a threat to US security and its economy.