Xi Jinping at the National People's Congress in Beijing, March 2016.
Jason Lee / Reuters

China should be a “global leader in innovation” by 2035, President Xi Jinping declared during the Chinese Communist Party’s 19th National Congress last October. His remarks reflected a core strategic ambition: After decades of reliance upon foreign technology, Xi’s China aspires not only to catch up with the West’s technological development but to surpass it—through a national strategy for “innovation-driven” development.

China’s trajectory in quantum science—which leverages principles of quantum mechanics to create disruptive, perhaps transformative technologies—will be a key test of Xi’s ambitions. Beijing is striving to become a world leader in quantum technology through large-scale state-guided investments, which may total tens of billions of dollars in the years to come. Under its 13th five-year plan, introduced in 2016, China has launched a “megaproject” for quantum communications and computing, which aims to achieve major breakthroughs in these technologies by 2030, including the expansion of China’s national quantum communications infrastructure, the development of a general quantum computer prototype, and the construction of a practical quantum simulator. China is also building the National Laboratory for Quantum Information Sciences, which, with over $1 billion in initial funding, could emerge as a key center of gravity for future research and development.

Will China succeed in its plans to pioneer advances in quantum technology? Similar state-guided investment projects have produced mixed results in recent years—China has apparently achieved some successes in the development of hypersonic weapons, yet seen only limited progress in semiconductors. Nonetheless, under Xi, China is clearly willing to place big bets on disruptive technologies. And although such gambles are risky, the potential payoff is enormous: if successful, China’s quest for leadership in quantum science may help to tilt the balance of power between Beijing and Washington.

QUANTUM LEAP

The advent of quantum technology promises major leaps forward in a number of important fieds. Take computing: whereas classical computers rely on bits—encoded as either a zero or a one—quantum computers work with qubits, which use the phenomenon known as superposition to encode information as zero and one simultaneously, enabling exponential increases in computing power that could be applied to areas such as machine learning and complex simulations. Quantum science could also revolutionize cryptography and communications: quantum computers could break the most common forms of encryption, which rely on the computational difficulty of prime factorization, while quantum cryptography, which exploits quantum properties for provable security, could make information far harder to decrypt. Meanwhile, advances in quantum sensing, metrology, and navigation may enable unique capabilities in detection, precision, and positioning.

Already, Beijing’s investment in quantum technology has started to produce results. In 2016, China launched the world’s first quantum satellite, which has since been used for a quantum-encrypted video call between China and Europe. The country is now in the process of completing and expanding a national infrastructure for quantum communications, which could enhance information security. Chinese scientists have set new world records in multi-particle entanglement, a key benchmark for progress in quantum computing. And China’s tech giants—companies such as Alibaba and Baidu—are also investing heavily in their own quantum initiatives. Notably, Alibaba has launched quantum computing services via a cloud platform based on an 11-qubit quantum processor.

The Chinese military and China’s defense industry have also taken a keen interest in quantum technology. For instance, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) may hope to use advances in quantum radar and sensing to offset the U.S. military’s superiority in stealth technology, which could be vulnerable to this new type of detection. The PLA Navy is looking to develop a quantum compass for its submarines that would enable them to navigate without the help of BeiDou (China’s counterpart to GPS), enabling independence from space systems that could be compromised in a conflict scenario. And quantum cryptography could give China an edge in securing military communications. Although the state of Chinese research can be opaque, there are initial indicators of progress, including reports of a successful prototype quantum radar. If these efforts succeed, China could leap ahead of the United States in this realm of military technology. 

China launches the world's first quantum satellite in Gansu Province, August 2016.
China Daily CDIC / Reuters

Yet when technologies sound magical—as quantum technology often does—enthusiasm for their potential can overtake reality. China’s progress in quantum science should be taken seriously but not exaggerated, due to the challenges that remain.   

It is still unclear, for instance, whether the implementation of quantum cryptography and communications at scale will enhance security enough to justify China’s investments. Indeed, the promise of perfect security through allegedly “unhackable” quantum cryptography may prove chimeric, given the potential vulnerabilities and remaining engineering challenges. It is also too soon to say whether China will win the race to advance quantum computing. The symbolic milestone of quantum supremacy—the point at which a quantum computer can outperform a classical computer—is in sight, yet the development of a fully functional quantum computer could require decades. In fact, future progress in quantum computing will be more of a marathon than a sprint, and it will demand years of sustained commitment and investment. There will be major challenges ahead, from basic issues of error correction (due to the fragility of qubits and problems of decoherence) to the development of new quantum algorithms and software. And with multiple potential pathways to quantum computing—including the use of trapped ions and both superconducting and topological qubits—the future of the technology remains wide open.

THE CHALLENGE OF CHINA?

China was once dismissed as a copycat, but it is now challenging U.S. leadership in emerging technologies that could become integral to national power. And although the United States has been at the forefront of quantum science, the U.S. innovation ecosystem has faced certain impediments ranging from inadequate investment to shortages of skilled workers.

China’s emergence as a serious contender in quantum science underlines the need for the United States to take steps to preserve its competitiveness. Recently, it has begun to do so. This month, the U.S. House of Representatives passedthe National Quantum Initiative Act, calling for the creation of National Quantum Information Science Research Centers within the Department of Energy. And earlier this week, the White House convened a quantum summit with business leaders and launched a new National Strategic Overview for Quantum Information Science. During the summit, the National Science Foundationand the Department of Energy both announced further funding for quantum research.

These recent initiatives are a good start, but their impact will depend on implementation. In particular, the United States must increase and then sustain its support for quantum research and development over the long term, while continuing to educate, attract, and retain talented students and scientists. Washington should continue to advance options for public-private partnerships and to pursue deeper collaboration with allies and partners. The United States must also prepare for the transition to post-quantum cryptography across its information technology ecosystem, given the threat posed by future quantum computers to today’s encryption.

Whereas the first quantum revolution—the advent of quantum theory in the early twentieth century—unlocked secrets about the nature of reality, we are now witnessing a second quantum revolution, in which theory is being applied to develop transformative technologies. While there is exciting research happening worldwide, China and the United States clearly share the ambition to lead, perhaps even dominate, in quantum science and technology. Indeed, the future of this great power rivalry will be shaped by the two countries’ trajectories in today’s emerging technologies—especially artificial intelligence and quantum computing, which may be critical to their future economic competitiveness and military might. Xi’s ambitions for Chinese leadership in innovation are integral to his “China dream” of “national rejuvenation”—they are thus inherently challenging to an international order in which the United States has long been predominant. 

  • ELSA B. KANIA is an Adjunct Fellow with the Technology and National Security Program at the Center for a New American Security.
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