By Gabriella Skoff and James Der Derian | Gif via The New York Times


As we enter a new decade, the world’s biggest competitors in science and technology continue to race ahead toward a strategic advantage in quantum technologies. National investments in quantum technologies, alongside others such as AI, are on the rise globally. It is clear from the numbers that nations are taking the development of their respective quantum industries seriously. While there has been a steady climb in national funding for quantum science and technology over the past ten years, 2020 arrived with headlines of a significant jump in the latest U.S. budget. This recent federal pivot toward investment in quantum capabilities, especially in the area of quantum communications, signifies that the U.S. is taking seriously the threat that one country in particular could reach the finish line first.


The U.S. and China lead the pack when it comes to funding the quantum race. It is generally accepted that China has taken a commanding lead in the development of secure quantum communications, while the U.S. is the front-runner in quantum computing. Recent data from Patininformatics illustrates the comparative levels of research focus through the lens of applied patents. In 2018, China had nearly twice the number of patents filed for quantum technology than the U.S., with a strong focus in the areas of quantum communications and cryptography. Since 2017, China has been actively engaged in the construction, expansion and improvement of a ground-based national quantum communications infrastructure and is heavily focused on deploying a growing net of quantum-enabled satellites for space-based quantum secure communications.


For China, this focus is no accident. As recently noted by the director of Project Q, this technological strategy was in part motivated by the 2013 leaks from former NSA contractor, Edward Snowden. According to multiple sources, the information disclosed by Snowden revealing extensive and effective U.S. cyber-espionage in China proved to be a major catalyst for China’s rapid quantum communications development. The Chinese “Father of Quantum” himself, leading quantum physicist Pan Jianwei, regularly mentions in interviews that the leaks motivated and accelerated his own research in quantum communications.


At the same time, data from the most recent Patinformatics report indicates that the U.S. continues to lead the world in quantum computing patent filings. The U.S.’s edge in quantum computing can be largely, if not entirely, attributed to private sector players such as IBM and Google. These U.S. companies, responsible for most quantum computing patents filed in the U.S., are blazing the trail in the development of a functional quantum computer, presenting a strong asset for the American security apparatus, so long as these companies can be kept on-side. This presents an interesting contrast to China, where quantum technological development lies at the heart of the government and is controlled directly and predominantly through top-down, state means. However, this present binary, pitting an offensive U.S. innovation apparatus against a defensive, Chinese future-proofing infrastructure is beginning to disentangle.


The question of who will “win” the quantum race has so far been deflected as “too early to say”, with a finish line that is not only further away than expected but is also proving difficult to even define. If, however, one follows the money, new signs are emerging of two countries changing leads at every furlough. In the 2019 Worldwide Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community produced for the U.S. Senate, China’s “multifaceted, long-term, whole-of-government approach to foreign technology acquisition and indigenous technology development” is presented as a major threat to U.S. security. Further, the report highlights: “advances in quantum computing foreshadow challenges to current methods of protecting data and transactions”—pegging the value of defensive quantum capabilities square with offensive capabilities.


Although China might well dominate the realm of defensive quantum communications, it is difficult to track the country’s efforts to mount an offensive capacity to break codes and attack databases. Nonetheless, concern has been voiced in the U.S. (in government more so than in academic circles) about the large number of Chinese students working in the sensitive area of quantum sciences at American and other western universities. There is mounting anxiety that Chinese studying in the U.S. and Australia are receiving western training in the quantum sciences only to bring the knowledge back to China to be used for adversarial military applications. This opinion is also reflected in the U.S. Threat Assessment Report: “We assess that China’s intelligence services will exploit the openness of American society, especially academia and the scientific community, using a variety of means”.


Critics have urged for years that the U.S. government should be far more proactive toward building out defensive quantum technological capabilities, so as not to be caught on the back foot once quantum computing comes to fruition. However, recent U.S. efforts have focused instead on achieving an episodic ‘quantum supremacy’ in computing. While this makes sense from a purely strategic or corporate perspective, the imbalance of focus has created a serious vulnerability for critical infrastructure and information systems which have not yet been secured as quantum-proof. This possibility is more real now than ever, as China has begun to focus on its quantum computing development, bolstered by top researchers (many foreign-educated) and quantum computing initiatives from powerful and well-resourced Chinese companies like Alibaba and Baidu.


Further, China’s $10 billion-dollar National Laboratory for Quantum Information Science in Hefei is currently under construction, and is set to be the world’s largest quantum research facility. According to the South China Morning Post, a “key mission” of the facility is to house the experts, laboratories and equipment required for China to “build the nation’s first supercomputer that could break an encrypted message in seconds”. If no delays arise, the facility should be completed this year. The Chinese whole-of-government approach to quantum financing and direction has so far proven to be incredibly effective and potent, demonstrating a capacity for rapid breakthroughs.


The recently released 2021 U.S. Budget for Science and Technology can be seen as a confirmation that the impact of the Chinese approach has finally registered, prompting the U.S. to take these developments seriously. The U.S. has now earmarked $25 million USD for the creation of its own national quantum internet, a stimulus which appears to be aimed at pushing the U.S. to catch up to China’s lead in quantum communications. The funds are slated by the U.S. Energy Department to be used for connecting 17 national research labs across the country in order to create a test network to explore quantum encryption and ultimately to build a secure quantum network. This is the largest amount of dedicated funding in the U.S. for quantum communications to date, following a pattern of increases in funding for quantum technologies in the U.S., which has increased fivefold over the last three years.


China’s opacity about investment and progress in quantum computing may not differ radically from other governments practicing strategic secrecy or corporations seeking to preserve proprietary interests. But if there is indeed a rapid innovation by one side or the other, the seamlessness of the military-corporate-research complex in China makes it that much easier for the country to “go dark”, leaving the U.S. and its allies with little warning of the crypto-security breach that could follow. The recent spike in governmental funding for quantum communications in the U.S. appears to signal that Washington is taking this threat seriously, but it may be too little too late for the U.S. to maintain a strategic advantage in the critical domain of quantum computing and communication. Ultimately, what sets off alarm bells inside the Beltway could well light up the Belt and the Road with celebratory fireworks.