China has made the development of quantum technology a national priority. Although many countries are engaged in the fierce competition in this field, China leads the globe in the study of quantum cryptography, which is said to lead to communications that can never be decrypted.
American security analysts have warned that China’s progress in quantum cryptography threatens to challenge, if not defang, current established technologies to intercept and hack telecommunications data.
China launched the world’s first quantum satellite known as “Micius (or Mozi)” in August 2016. Soon after, the satellite was used for a quantum-encrypted intercontinental video link between Beijing and Vienna in an experiment conducted by a joint China-Austria study group. It flabbergasted quantum technology scholars around the world in September 2017.
The experiment was conducted under the leadership of Pan Jianwei, a professor at the University of Science and Technology of China (USTC). Dr. Pan explained his thoughts about the experiment and China’s superpower ambitions in an interview with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Technology Review.
“We were only the follower and the learner at the birth of modern information science...[however] now we have a chance...to be a leader,” he said.
The impact of quantum cryptology is discussed in another report titled “QUANTUM HEGEMONY? China’s Ambitions and the Challenge to U.S. Innovation Leadership,” which was published in September 2018 by Elsa B. Kania & John K. Costello. Ms. Kania is an adjunct fellow with the Technology and National Security Program at the Center for a New American Security, a Washington DC-based think tank, while Mr. Castello is a co-founder and director emeritus for the China Cyber and Intelligence Studies Institute, as well as a cybersecurity fellow at CNAS.
The report explains why quantum cryptography is “uncrackable,” at least in theory. It explains, “The most prevalent approach is known as quantum key distribution (QKD), through which cryptographic keys are exchanged in quantum states through entanglement.”
It also highlights the theory that “quantum key distribution ensures ‘perfect,’ or rather ‘provable,’ security, including against future quantum computers, which will have the power to break prevalent types of classical encryption.”
The authors point out that the “major advantage of using quantum cryptography to secure information and communications is that the recipient and sender can determine if the message has been intercepted.”
Disempowerment of Stealth Aircraft?
The CNAS report emphasizes China’s ambitions to leverage the quantum technology through the nation’s military trategy. Among its revelations, “It is clear that quantum technologies are prioritized within China’s national strategy for military-civil fusion.”
It cautions against the vision of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) for a quantum radar system, pointing out, “If operationalized, quantum radar could have the potential to overcome superior U.S. stealth capabilities through its extreme sensitivity, perhaps enabling the PLA to undermine this critical pillar of U.S. military power.”
The report also says, “PLA media has highlighted quantum radar as the ‘nemesis’ of today’s stealth fighter planes that will have ‘remarkable potential’ on the future battlefield.... In any conflict with China, the use of stealth would be a strategic imperative for the United States, critical to aircraft penetrating Chinese airspace to hold Chinese operational assets at risk.”
Moreover, it mentions “quantum radar and imaging could be massive disruptive force” and sounds the warning that the United States “should recognize that stealth might not be an assured advantage in a future conflict scenario.”
Behind the caution by American researchers is a sense of danger from the enormous budget and spending China has committed to research developments for the latest technology leading to its military buildup.
This report puts the spotlight on researchers at the Engineering University of the PLA Strategic Support Force who are actively engaged in research on quantum cryptography and communications. It also points out that the university “is supporting the creation of the Key Laboratory of quantum Information and Quantum Cryptography of Henan Province” (eastern region of China). Moreover, it reveals that PLASSF’s Engineering University “plans to create a future Quantum Cryptography Laboratory that will build upon its current research, while perhaps also leveraging its academics’ engagements with the academic and technical communities.”
U.S., Japan Accelerating Development Work
The United States, engaged in this race, is accelerating the pace of its own quantum technology development. MIT Technology Review says a team of researchers from the U.S. Army Research Laboratory in Adelphi, Maryland, is working on an approach called quantum teleportation. The article suggests “the technology is still confined to a lab, but the team says it’s now robust enough to be tested outside.”
The U.S. government is also advancing other quantum technology development in the country. U.S. President Donald Trump signed into law the U.S. National Quantum Initiative Act on December 21, 2018, which calls for $1.25 billion USD in funding over the first five years for a coordinated multiagency program to support research, foster development of quantum information technology, and encourage industry participation.
This initiative reflects the more serious tone of U.S. engagement in research to counter China’s global effort to achieve hegemonic power in the quantum technology field.
Quantum technology is an area which has been continuously researched in Japan as well. A former high-level official at the Japanese Ministry of Defense told to The Sankei Shimbun and JAPAN Forward: “I think the concerned authorities in Japan have an interest in working on it.”
While there is a tightening of the fierce competition between the U.S. and China regarding myriad aspects, such as trade and science technology, the former government official said that it is imperative that Japan not fail and that the country stay current with technological developments in the world.
Author: Mizuki Okada