Photo: See-ming Lee 李思明 SML Universe

Science and technology

China is dominating the global race for future power, with the country establishing a significant lead in high-impact research across the majority of critical and emerging technology domains, according to a report from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI). The report, called the Critical Technology Tracker, examines 44 critical technologies spanning defence, space, robotics, energy, biotechnology, artificial intelligence, advanced materials and key quantum technology areas.

China's global lead extends to 37 of the 44 technologies tracked, with the country excelling in defence and space-related technologies. Notably, China's strides in nuclear-capable hypersonic missiles reportedly took US intelligence by surprise in August 2021. ASPI's Critical Technology Tracker shows that, for some technologies, all of the world's top 10 leading research institutions are based in China, collectively generating nine times more high-impact research papers than the second-ranked country, most often the US.

The US comes second in the majority of the 44 technologies examined in the Critical Technology Tracker, with a large gap between China and the US, as the leading two countries, and everyone else. The data then indicates a small, second-tier group of countries led by India and the UK. Other countries that regularly appear in this group include South Korea, Germany, Australia, Italy, and less often, Japan.

Australia is in the top five for nine technologies, followed closely by Italy (seven technologies), Iran (six), Japan (four) and Canada (four). Russia, Singapore, Saudi Arabia, France, Malaysia and the Netherlands are in the top five for one or two technologies. A number of other countries, including Spain and Turkey, regularly make the top 10 countries but aren’t in the top five.

One surprising finding of the report is that Iran has surpassed countries like Japan, Canada, France and Russia to secure its place in the top five in six critical technologies.

In the long term, China's leading research position means that it has set itself up to excel not just in current technological development in almost all sectors but in future technologies that don't yet exist. The report notes that, unchecked, this could shift not just technological development and control but global power and influence to an authoritarian state where the development, testing and application of emerging, critical and military technologies isn't open and transparent and where it can't be scrutinised by independent civil society and media.

In the more immediate term, China's lead, coupled with successful strategies for translating research breakthroughs to commercial systems and products that are fed into an efficient manufacturing base, could allow China to gain a stranglehold on the global supply of certain critical technologies. The report notes that such risks are exacerbated because of the willingness of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to use coercive techniques outside of the global rules-based order to punish governments and businesses, including withholding the supply of critical technologies.

The report's authors highlight the gap in understanding of the critical technology ecosystem, including its current trajectory. They urge the filling of this gap to avoid a future in which one or two countries dominate new and emerging industries, as happened with 5G technologies. It is important to ensure that countries have ongoing access to trusted and secure critical technology supply chains, they say.

Here is a list of the top countries and universities according to the ASPI's Critical Technology Tracker report:

Top Countries:

  • China: leads in 37 out of 44 technologies
  • United States: comes second in the majority of the 44 technologies
  • United Kingdom: appears in the top five countries in 29 of the 44 technologies
  • India: appears in the top five countries in 29 of the 44 technologies
  • South Korea: appears in the top five countries in 20 technologies
  • Germany: appears in the top five countries in 17 technologies
  • Australia: appears in the top five for nine technologies
  • Italy: appears in the top five for seven technologies
  • Iran: appears in the top five for six technologies
  • Japan: appears in the top five for four technologies
  • Canada: appears in the top five for four technologies
  • Russia, Singapore, Saudi Arabia, France, Malaysia, and the Netherlands: appear in the top five for one or two technologies

Top Universities:

  • Chinese Academy of Sciences:
    ranks in the top five in 27 of the 44 technologies
  • Delft University of Technology (Netherlands):
    has supremacy in a number of quantum technologies
  • University of California system (US):
    well represented in some areas, including in the AI category
  • Indian Institute of Technology:
    a high performer in a range of technologies
  • Nanyang Technological University (NTU Singapore):
    a leading institution in several critical technologies
  • University of Science and Technology China:
    excels in energy and environment technologies, advanced materials, and in a range of quantum, defence, and AI technologies including advanced data analytics, machine learning, quantum sensors, advanced robotics, and small satellites
  • Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (US):
    one of several national labs that appear in the top five for certain technologies
  • Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Hewlett Packard Enterprise, and IBM: all well represented in some areas, including in the AI category

As for Finland, the country doesn’t even make it to the list. Finland and China are both investing heavily in research and development in critical technologies. While Finland's public R&D expenditure was 2.84% of its GDP in 2020, China's was 2.4%, according to the World Bank and OECD, respectively. However, due to its larger economy, China's total R&D expenditure is significantly higher than Finland's. In 2020, China spent $608.4 billion on R&D, while Finland spent $8.6 billion.

While Finland is overshadowed by a long list of countries, when compared to China; in the field of advanced materials and manufacturing, China outshines Finland with 17% of total publications compared to Finland's 1%. In contrast, Finland has a higher quality of publications in the top 10%, with China leading with 20%. China's strength in specific technologies like coatings, continuous flow chemical synthesis, and critical minerals extraction and processing is noteworthy.

When it comes to artificial intelligence, computing, and communications, China has a higher percentage of total publications, with 31% compared to Finland's 0%. In biotechnology, gene technologies, and vaccines, China leads with 20% compared to Finland's 1%. However, Finland has produced high-quality publications with 1% of its publications featured in the top 10%. In contrast, China has 26% and 52% of its publications in biological manufacturing and synthetic biology, respectively.

China also has higher percentages of total publications in energy and environment, quantum, sensing, timing and navigation, and transportation, robotics, and space, with Finland falling below the threshold. Despite Finland's small research output in certain categories, it has produced high-quality publications in others.

This report uses research publication data from the WoS Core Collection database to compare the performance of all countries in critical technologies across six categories. However, the project only includes publicly available data, and classified research by governments and private companies that isn't published is not captured. Although China maintains its own bibliometric databases, researchers based in China's prestigious universities prefer to publish in international journals. The study uses citation metrics to surface groundbreaking research and assigns credit for each paper equally between authors named on each individual paper. The top 10% most highly cited papers are considered as the top tier of high-quality publications.