Australian think tank Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) released a report entitled “Who is Leading the Critical Technology Race” in March 2023. The report consolidates insights from the organizations Critical Technology Tracker database, which ranks global leadership in 44 critical technologies spread across the 7 broad technology areas as captured in the image below.
The authors found that the People’s Republic of China was leading in research of 37 of the 44 technologies with the US the leader in the remaining 7, with significant implications for global geopolitics and defence and security capabilities given the multi-use nature of the commercially developed technologies in question. As the authors note:
“Critical technologies already underpin the global economy and our society. From the energy-efficient microprocessors in smart phones to the security that enables online banking and shipping these technologies are ubiquitous and essential . . . They’re also the basis for military capability on the battlefield, are underpinning new hybrid warfare techniques and can give intelligence agencies a major edge over adversaries” (page 4).
The ASPI report’s methodology focused on assessing the quality of global research rather than mere quantity. As the authors point out, “not all the millions of research papers published each year are high quality.”
So, instead the research project focused on three country-level “quality metrics”:
- Proportion of papers in the top 10% most highly cited research reports
- The H-index over a five-year period, “an established performance metric used for analyzing the importance of scholarly output” that is calculated from citation numbers of individual’s set of publications
- The number of research institutions a country has in the world’s top 10 – 20 highest performing institutions
The paper’s main assertion is 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” (page 1). This is a development of concern to the authors who argue that China’s dominant concentration of expertise across a range of strategic sectors has short and long term implications for democratic nations, namely: 1) China achieving a “stranglehold on the global supply chain of certain technologies” and 2) a lack of transparency in development and testing of current and future critical technologies and norms surrounding their development and use.
The United States was seen as the only reasonably close competitor to China across the technology areas, though it is only leading in seven of the technologies of interest: high performance computing, advanced integrated circuit design and fabrication, natural language processing, quantum computing, vaccines, small satellites, and space launch systems.
The United Kingdom and India are “the next most important technological powerhouses” according to the report with both in the top five in 29 of 44 technologies.
While readers can note limitations or caveats to the study’s finding of a technologically dominant China—even an abundance of quality research papers do not always lead to operationalization of technologies for commercial, civil, or defence / security purposes, for example—it does present an impressive, innovative, and extensive data-driven means of quantifying the current landscape of global technology development that reflects:
- China’s growing importance in the global research and supply chain for commercial technologies crucial to the future of defence and security
- The separation of China and the US from much of the rest of the world in research and development across the full suite of these technologies
- The risks of technology and supply chain monopolies in critical technology areas
- The research institutes across the world that are developing world-class expertise in specific technology areas