The China-US Quantum Race

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The China-US Quantum Race

In the quantum race, second place may be the first to lose. 

The China-US Quantum Race
Credit: Depositphotos

Quantum researchers in China claim to have an algorithm capable of breaking public-key encryption, years before anyone expected. Accurate or not, the announcement serves as a reminder that surprising quantum breakthroughs are possible in the near term. If the Biden administration is serious about its designation of quantum information science (QIS) as a critical technology area for national security, it must do more to safeguard U.S. quantum superiority. 

QIS uses the laws of quantum physics, which describes the properties of nature on a tiny scale, to advance the processing, analysis, and transmission of information. Quantum computing, quantum encryption, and quantum sensing constitute the three primary domains within QIS. Although it is an evolving field, QIS promises to transform almost any industry dependent on speed and processing power, from aerospace and automotive to finance and pharmaceuticals. 

Like other emerging technologies, quantum has become a crux of China-U.S. competition. The first country to operationalize quantum technologies will possess a toolkit of capabilities that can overwhelm unprepared adversaries. Quantum-enabled countries could crack existing encryption methods, build unbreakable encrypted communications networks, and develop the world’s most precise sensors. The country leading in quantum will be able to threaten adversaries’ corporate, military, and government information infrastructure faster than an adversary can implement effective defenses. 

Quantum technologies also carry immense potential market value, with quantum computing alone expected to reach a global market value of $1 trillion by 2035. The first country to commercialize quantum will have an upper hand in establishing market dominance, developing quantum governance models, and pursuing novel quantum applications. Because quantum is an enabling technology, advancement in QIS may also catalyze a series of disruptive innovations in other profitable technology areas, such as artificial intelligence. 

For now, the United States maintains superiority in the development of quantum computing and quantum sensing capabilities. But China is gaining momentum, already leading in the development of quantum communications and total number of quantum technology patents. Multiple Chinese strategy documents include quantum-related initiatives, reflecting the technology’s perceived importance to Chinese national, information, and cybersecurity. 

China recently achieved several significant quantum enhancements. In August 2022, Chinese technology company Baidu unveiled its first quantum computer, which uses quantum bits, or qubits, to perform complex calculations at extraordinary speeds. Quantum computers could allow China to break modern encryption protocols, accelerate machine learning research, and improve optimization and simulation processes. 

China is improving in quantum communication and sensing as well. China has operationalized multiple quantum-enabled satellites, taking steps toward establishing secure ground-to-space quantum communications networks. Chinese scientists also allegedly engineered a quantum-based radar capable of penetrating stealth military technologies, which have served as the foundation of the U.S. military’s air superiority and most advanced submarines for decades. 

China’s advances will not necessarily translate into scalable quantum technologies ready for commercialization. Several bottlenecks, including qubits’ susceptibility to noise and calibration, insufficient programing development, and a shortage of talent, continue to impede QIS progress in both China and the United States. Nonetheless, U.S. President Joe Biden can build on recent efforts to bolster quantum defenses and take additional steps to secure the United States’ QIS advantage. 

First, the Biden administration should collaborate with European allies to advance principles-based QIS research. The United States’ bilateral QIS agreements with France, Switzerland, and Denmark are laudable first steps that could be modeled and expanded. Transatlantic QIS cooperation will spur innovation, advance democratic tech governance models, and ensure the interoperability of U.S. and allied tech systems. It will also increase access to talent and illuminate potential vulnerabilities within the QIS supply chain. 

Further, U.S. government representatives have hinted that quantum-related trade restrictions may be necessary to address the China threat in the future. The Biden administration’s recent struggle to organize multilateral restrictions on the export of semiconductor chips to China demonstrates the importance of forethought and proactive coordination on tech regulations. Establishing a solid transatlantic QIS relationship now will make it easier to implement effective, multilateral trade restrictions later, potentially avoiding the obstacles hampering implementation of the administration’s semiconductor export controls announced on October 7. 

Second, the Biden administration should build on recent science and technology research security initiatives by sharing foreign threat information with industry partners engaged in quantum development. Private sector companies, including IBM, Google, and Microsoft, currently lead in advancing quantum and identifying new quantum applications. Threat information about strategic competitors would help industry partners make prudent research collaboration decisions and develop defenses against technology theft and leakage. International partners may also feel more confident collaborating with U.S. companies that recognize and appreciate the strategic threat landscape. 

Significant technical hurdles continue to slow progress toward a world in which quantum technologies upend traditional understandings of national security, economic prosperity, and everyday life. Nevertheless, the United States should not wait to reaffirm its position as a QIS leader. The quantum race is one the U.S. cannot afford to lose.