China experts: US still out front in tech race despite Pentagon claim

(SCMP) – Chinese experts have rejected the claim by a senior Pentagon official that the US is lagging behind China in some key dual-use technologies.

Michael Brown, director of the US Department of Defence’s innovation unit, said at a seminar earlier this week that China was either competitive or catching up in the areas of hypersonics, artificial intelligence, quantum sciences, 5G mobile networks, genetic engineering, and space.

With the exception of hypersonics, these technologies had not only military applications but were also critical for long-term economic prosperity, making them important to the future of US-China competition, he said.

“I believe that national security and economic security are inextricably linked,” Brown told the think tank Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

But Chinese experts said China’s progress had been exaggerated and many of its achievements were only partial successes so far.

Hong Kong-based military commentator Song Zhongping said the US had been “unarguably more successful and experienced, far ahead of anyone” in space technology. “Look at Project Apollo and the Space Shuttle programme – decades later no other country has ever matched those achievements,” he said.

Despite breakthroughs in certain fields like 5G, there was more generally a clear gap between China’s digital information and electronics technologies and the world’s technological leaders, according to Beijing-based naval expert Li Jie.

In the field of hypersonics, China may have achieved milestones in glider vehicles, but in another important technology – ramjet engines – there was no evidence of any major breakthroughs, and the US was still far more experienced in the field, said Zhao Tong, senior fellow at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Centre for Global Policy.

China exhibited hypersonic missiles and drones at last month’s National Day parade, and has just launched a commercial 5G – fifth generation mobile network – service on Friday, which is the biggest in the world.

Huawei, China’s telecommunication giant has won contracts to construct the 5G infrastructures for many countries, despite the US campaign to ban Huawei equipment over security concerns.

Brown said China was “already ahead of the US in quantum sciences” – citing the Chinese launch in 2016 of Micius, the world’s first quantum communications satellite. China had also made more launches into space than the US in 2018 as it speeded up its space programme, he said.

Brown added the US had used Chinese equipment for genome sequencing, which meant China had more data on the genetic sequencing of the US population than the US itself, he said, and the US was also playing “a catch up game” with China in AI-based facial recognition.

For the past 50 to 80 years, the US had led the way and set the standards in almost all important technologies and industries, he said. In doing so, the US had been able to build and shape a global ecosystem and enjoy its advantages since the end of World War II.

But, Brown warned, for China to set the pace for these technologies would be “game-changing”.

“Imagine what the world would look like if China was setting standards,” he said. “Over time, that means we have fewer levers to shape what the US wants to do, both from a global technology standpoint and also what are the values that are highlighted around the world as ones to be looked up to.”

Ni Lexiong, a Shanghai-based military commentator, said Brown had his own agenda in making his comments.

“The US military wants more budget, more new equipment, more new R&D projects. And the theory of a China threat is, of course, a handy excuse,” Ni said.