China’s ascent to the status of technology and science superpower is unnerving to many. The reason is that it is uncertain and ambiguous how this status will translate into military power. For example, in the field of AI, China has not only made progress but some—including Google’s former chief executive, Eric Schmidt—believe it will finally surpass the United States. (Eric Schmidt moved on to head Pentagon’s Innovation Advisory Board in 2016, an advisory body that aims to create more synergies between the Pentagon and Silicon Valley innovation.) Such forecasts are not pure speculations but rather based on inputs coming from China. In fact, Beijing published its AI strategy in July 2017, asserting its ambition to become the global leader in the field by 2030. China’s ventures into quantum satellite technology are certainly not isolated, but are part of its wider vision of becoming a powerhouse for innovation.
This plan is also reflected in a series of institutional changes, some quite unorthodox for a country with blurred lines between state and private-owned businesses.
In recent years, China has intensified its efforts—begun almost two decades ago—to reduce the barriers between the private sector and its industrial military base. The Chinese government has called it the “civil-military fusion.” This model of innovation had already been initiated in the United States as well, where innovation is no longer solely led by projects funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (as had been the case with the Internet and GPS, funded by the Advanced Research Projects Agency), but is the effort of a wider constellation of actors. For example, the Department of Defense created an institutional bridge between the military, and Silicon Valley, Austin and Boston, which is called Defense Innovation Units Experimental, or diux.
In 2015, the China State Council released a document on its major new strategic initiative called “Made in China 2025.” The goal of the initiative is to boost and upgrade China’s industry and make it innovation-driven—somewhat inspired from the German plan for “Industry 4.0.” Aerospace and aeronautical equipment is one of the ten industries listed as priorities. The Strategic Support Force, which is responsible for space, cyber and electronic warfare, also began signing agreements with research universities.
If scientists can achieve quantum entanglement between Beijing and Graz, it will represent a resounding feat of engineering. Establishing a network of communication satellites using “super-secure” quantum encryption could then greatly enhance China’s military power. Although China is currently leading the way, it does not have a monopoly on quantum technology. There are several other leading institutions in Europe, Asia and North America, which are also investigating quantum-enabled communication technology. Canada’s Quantum Encryption and Science Satellite (QEYSSat) is, for example, in a planning stage and uses a somewhat simpler approach compared to Micius. The QEYSSat team reported a successful test of the technology in 2017 when they achieved “quantum key distribution from a ground transmitter to a receiver prototype mounted on an airplane in flight.” Optical links and quantum signals were transmitted up to 10 km in the air.
China will, in all likelihood, not be able to maintain its current gains indefinitely, as it will require some time before an operational quantum-enabled satellite network can be established. Other countries with sophisticated technological industries will undoubtedly seek to replicate Chinese technology, if they believe that being left behind reduces their security or influence in space. Indeed, a darker, less welcome outcome of these developments would be the emergence of a new arms race, as forecast by Chinese lead researcher Jian-Wei Pan: “I think we have started a worldwide quantum space race.”
Indeed, Beijing’s more assertive—and at times aggressive—ventures into space are closely monitored by the United States, which is concerned about the future of its leadership in space. U.S. scientific and commercial leadership in space is still unchallenged for at least another two decades, but the United States has good reasons to regard China’s actions with a great deal of concern.
A Space Subcommittee Hearing in 2016 titled “Are we losing the space race to China?” expressed these fears precisely. It emphasized the fast progress achieved by China in human spaceflight (the only third country after the United States and Russia to have launched a human into space), which is one of the country’s most advanced and technologically complex programs, involving over three-thousand organizations. The same hearing mentioned a number of other impressive achievements and future ambitions in space, such as about China’s plan to send astronauts to the moon before 2036—a plan that continues to be shrouded in secrecy. International prestige is a major driver for China’s pursuits in space, but these actions also have diplomatic and commercial implications. For example, Beijing’s marketing of commercial satellites and space launch services can reduce the market share of U.S. firms. Diplomatically, it has begun fostering partnerships with several other nations interested in space, such as Nigeria. In 2008, China led the creation of the Asia-Pacific Space Cooperation Organization (APSCO). Nevertheless, the conclusion of the chairman for the U.S.-China Commission at the 2016 hearing noted that despite this record, the United States should not expect that China’s “milestones” will realistically surpass those of the United States.
Quantum computing is a notable milestone, not only for its scientific value, but especially for its military applicability. Since the Cold War, space has been a domain for scientific cooperation—even between rival states. Now, this kind of collaboration, it seems, is proving at times more difficult. It is important to note that Washington has rather strained relations with Beijing in space matters and the aforementioned 2016 hearing conveys a tone of concern regarding the advances of China in outer space. In the past, China did contribute to NASA missions. This changed in 2011, when a U.S. law forbade official collaboration between NASA and China, as well as excluding them from participation in the International Space Station. Official visits have also been limited since 2011, although a relative thawing was marked by the inauguration of the 2015 “US-China Civil Space Cooperation Dialogue.” Discussions were limited to a few areas, such as satellite collision avoidance. At the third meeting in 2017, the two countries discussed plans for human and robotic space exploration and “ways to improve bilateral cooperation on spaceflight safety issues.”
It remains to be seen whether quantum technological developments will follow a pattern of cooperation or competition—or whether we will see a regression towards more secretive programs, aimed at gaining influence in space and on earth.
The latter would be unfortunate, as securing global communications via quantum encryption would greatly reduce the vulnerability of our current communication infrastructure to hacking, espionage and interference. As always, the hope remains that the development of this technology follows a predictable path and will in no way be skewed by rogue actors with dishonest intent.
Nayef Al-Rodhan is an honorary fellow at St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford, and senior fellow and head of the Geopolitics and Global Futures Programme at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy. He is the author of Meta-Geopolitics of Outer Space. An Analysis of Space Power, Security and Governance (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).