Chinese research on some key military technologies is so far ahead that the United States and its key allies may never be able to catch up, according to a new analysis by an Australian think tank.
The Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) issued its findings Tuesday based on a review of the top 10% of the most highly cited research papers, concluding China leads in 19 of 23 key categories, including some that are likely to play a major role in Beijing’s push for military prominence in the Indo-Pacific and beyond.
China “has a commanding lead in hypersonics, electronic warfare and in key undersea capabilities,” the ASPI study found, further warning, “China’s leads are so emphatic they create a significant risk that China might dominate future technological breakthroughs in these areas.”
The analysis further found that for hypersonics, nine of the 10 leading research institutions are based in China, while China is home to all 10 of the top research venues for undersea drones.
Unlike ballistic missiles, which fly at hypersonic speeds but travel along a set trajectory, hypersonic weapons are highly maneuverable despite flying at Mach 5, or five times the speed of sound.
And the gaps between China and everyone else are significant. With some technologies, like hypersonics, China produces more than 73% of all high-impact research, more than the U.S. and the next eight countries combined.
The analysis also found indications that China is using Western research institutions to its advantage.
More than 14% of “high-impact” Chinese authors — those who wrote the works cited most often — did their post-graduate training in the U.S., Australia or Britain, ASPI said, noting the percentage is close to 20% for researchers writing about hypersonic detections and close to 18% for electronic warfare.
There are some areas, however, where the U.S. and its allies maintain an edge.
ASPI said the U.S. leads in high-impact research on autonomous systems, quantum computing and quantum sensors, some areas of artificial intelligence and in protective cybersecurity.
When U.S. research efforts are combined with those of Australia and Britain, the so-called AUKUS partnership, the gap closes a bit more, though China still retains a considerable research advantage.
“The fact that the three AUKUS nations still trail China in some fields even when their efforts are tallied underscores the value of the technology-sharing agreement, whose aim is to accelerate shared technological development by enabling the partners to leverage one another’s strengths,” ASPI wrote in a statement accompanying the report.
ASPI also said it hopes the findings would “strengthen some calls for AUKUS to expand technology cooperation to other countries such as Japan.”
The U.S., Australia and Britain entered into the AUKUS agreement in September 2021 to address mutual concerns in the Indo-Pacific and to boost advancements in artificial technology, quantum computing and cyber defense.
One of the most prominent pieces of the three-country alliance included a U.S.-Australian plan to build Australia at least eight nuclear powered submarines.
U.S. defense and military officials have repeatedly voiced concerns about China’s expanding military and the advanced technology fueling the expansion.
In March, the Defense Intelligence Agency’s chief scientist told reporters in Washington that Beijing already has the world’s leading arsenal of hypersonic weapons.
The U.S. is developing its own hypersonic weapons but all of them remain in testing or development.
Other U.S. intelligence officials have also warned about China’s ability to leverage advanced technology.
In February, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines warned that the high-altitude spy balloon China sent over the continental U.S. could just be the start of Chinese surveillance efforts.
“As technology improves, as we start to see more high-altitude vehicles, in effect, we’re going to see more of this,” she said. “We’re going to have to understand that and manage it.”
Chinese officials continue to deny the high-altitude balloon that was ultimately shot down off the U.S. Atlantic coast was a surveillance device, arguing instead it was a weather balloon.