US-China tech war: China to overtake America in core 21st century technologies within next decade, Harvard report predicts

  • China is poised to gain on the US in the fields of AI, 5G, quantum information science, semiconductors, biotechnology and green energy
  • In some areas, China is already leading the US, according to a report from the Harvard Kennedy School

China, which has displaced the United States as the world’s top hi-tech manufacturer, is predicted to gain on – if it has not already overtaken – the world’s largest economy within the next decade in the foundational technologies of the 21st century, including artificial intelligence (AI), 5G, quantum information science (QIS), semiconductors, biotechnology and green energy.

That sweeping forecast was made in a new report, The Great Rivalry: China vs the US in the 21st Century, published on Tuesday by the Belfer Centre for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School, the public policy institution of Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

“Today, China’s rapid rise to challenge US dominance of technology’s commanding heights has captured America’s attention,” said the report, which documents the competition between the two countries in the past 20 years.

“In some races, [China] has already become No 1. In others, on current trajectories, it will overtake the US within the next decade,” the report said. Its lead author is Graham Allison, founding dean of the Harvard Kennedy School, author of the international bestseller Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap? and a former US Assistant Defence Secretary.

The report adds a fresh voice to a growing chorus in the US, warning the country is now at risk of being replaced by China as the world’s top economic and technological power – this generation’s Sputnik moment.

In 1957, the US was caught unprepared when the Soviet Union launched the world’s first Earth-orbiting satellite called Sputnik 1. The event galvanised the US into action, igniting a space race that eventually led to the country’s successful landing of the first human on the moon in 1969.

China has already supplanted the US as the world’s top hi-tech manufacturer, producing 250 million computers, 25 million cars and 1.5 billion smartphones in 2020, according to the Harvard report.

In October, US intelligence officials warned American technology firms against working with China in the fields of AI, quantum computing, bioscience, semiconductors and autonomous systems.

In AI, China is already a “full-spectrum peer competitor” of the US, according to the Harvard report, citing a quote from former Google chief executive Eric Schmidt. It indicated that China is laying the intellectual groundwork for a generational advantage in AI.

The report indicated that in deep learning – AI’s hottest subfield – China has six times more patent publications than the US. It cited an assessment of the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence, which forecast the US to fall to second place in the top 1 per cent of most-cited AI papers by 2025.

In 5G, nearly all key indicators support projections that China will dominate this field, according to the report. By the end of 2020, China had 150 million 5G users to America’s 6 million; 700,000 5G base stations to America’s 50,000; 460 megahertz of licensed mid-band spectrum to America’s 70 MHz; and 300 megabits per second average 5G speeds to America’s 60 Mbps.

Despite China’s edge in those numbers, the US maintains a competitive edge in 5G research and development, standards and applications, according to the report.

In quantum computing, quantum communication and quantum sensing – three subfields within QIS traditionally led by US researchers – “China is catching up and, in some cases, has already overtaken America”, the report said.

“Unlike prior technological revolutions that took place when China was still a poor country, China’s meteoric rise has provided it with the funds and manpower to potentially lead this field,” it said.

Chinese physicists have recently claimed breakthroughs in quantum computing. In November, a team of 14 Chinese scientists behind the New Generation Sunway exascale supercomputer won this year’s annual Gordon Bell Prize for a breakthrough that closes the gap in so-called quantum supremacy.

In semiconductors, the report predicted China to become the world’s largest semiconductor producer in mature technology nodes.

With a three-fold increase in its share of global chip consumption – from less than 20 per cent in 2000 to 60 per cent in 2019 – China’s growing domestic demand has provided both market and national security incentives to expand its push into the semiconductor industry, according to the report.

“The undeniable reality is that China’s potential to become a semiconductor leader can no longer be discounted,” the report said. “On the current trajectory, it is more likely than not that President Xi [Jinping] will accomplish his goal of China becoming a top-tier player in the semiconductor industry by 2030.”

The US, however, retains control of key supply chain choke points through firms like Applied Materials and Lam Research, which hold 55 per cent market share of chip manufacturing equipment – versus 2 per cent for China – and 85 per cent of electronic design automation software, according to the report.

In the areas of biotechnology and green energy, the report indicated that China has become a potent competitor to the US, aided by increased efforts in research and development, its manufacturing prowess and government-backed initiatives. While China is the world’s No 1 producer of greenhouse gases, it is also a leader in renewable energy development.

Both Don Rosenberg, a former general counsel at Qualcomm and Apple, and Google’s Schmidt have endorsed the Harvard report. Lead author Allison and Schmidt said in a joint commentary piece published in The Wall Street Journal on Wednesday that the report “isn’t alarmist, but nonetheless concludes that China has made such extraordinary leaps”.

Author: Che Pan, SCMP

You might also like