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April 26, 2021updated 27 Jun 2022 4:35am

Can the UK and its allies narrow the technology gap with China?

GCHQ director warns of "moment of reckoning" in the battle for tech supremacy, and Beijing has the upper hand.

By Laurie Clarke

GCHQ’s director Jeremy Fleming has warned that the west is facing a “moment of reckoning”, where it will no longer shape the key technologies of tomorrow. Amidst ratcheting tensions with China, Fleming framed this as a direct threat to national security, one which the UK government hopes to combat through investment in innovation. But with the UK and its allies already lagging behind China in many key areas, closing the technology gap could prove an insurmountable task.

UK technology strategy

Jeremy Fleming, director of Government Communication Headquarters. (Photo by Roslan Rahman/AFP via Getty Images)

“We have to keep evolving our approach if we’re going to keep up,” Fleming warned on Friday. “The risk is that the technology is implemented in a way in which we can’t assure its security.”

The ‘moment of reckoning’ phrase is dramatic, but its use is justified.
Joseph Devanny, King’s College London

“The ‘moment of reckoning’ phrase is dramatic, but its use is justified”, says Joseph Devanny, lecturer in the department of war studies at King’s College London. “The dependence of everyday life on a range of technologies underlines the security implications of the global economy, particularly in a period of increasing geopolitical anxieties focused on China.” Devanny said this can equally concern the role of foreign companies in domestic infrastructure, or the insecurity of digital infrastructure, whoever owns it, for example in the case of the recent SolarWinds or Microsoft Exchange hacks.

Devanny says that it’s unsurprising Fleming focused on the strategic priority of science and technology, given it’s a central pillar of the recently unveiled UK Integrated Review. The Review, laying out the UK’s defence policy,  proposed an ‘Own-Collaborate-Access’ framework to “identify those areas where the UK has global competitive advantage, can form international partnerships, or instead needs to find other ways of securing reliable access by making deals or building new relationships,” says Devanny.  

Has the West lost the technology battle already?

As security fears deepen in the West, a desire to implement western-made technologies, especially in critical infrastructure, has grown. The problem is that Western countries have already fallen behind in many of these areas. As Fleming put it: “The conversation about 5G was really lost a decade ago when Western nations decided that they weren’t going to invest in the underpinning infrastructures… and the result was we just didn’t have the choices.” 

When the UK decided to cut Chinese telecoms company Huawei out of its 5G plans – due to fears that US sanctions would increase insecurity in the company’s supply chain – very few competitors were left to take its place. Huawei is a world leader in 5G; European competitors including Ericsson and Nokia, and South Korea’s Samsung, are further behind and more expensive. The UK sacrificed a number of years and billions of pounds by deciding to cut Huawei out of its network; creeping technological nationalism could have the same detrimental effect across a range of technologies. 

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A new report from Deutsche Gesellschaft für Auswärtige Politik (DGAP; a foreign policy think tank), outlined some key technologies where Europe has fallen behind the rest of the world, and particularly China, including AI, cloud computing, semiconductors, 5G and mobile networks, and quantum computing. 

The report argues that “technological innovation is driving geopolitical, economic and military competition”. But because the US and China are leading the way “the risk of an emerging global bipolar technology environment is looming; one that could force third countries to come down on the side of the US or China”.

The EU and the UK suffer from a lack of an equivalent to Silicon Valley, with successful UK tech companies including DeepMind and Arm more likely to be subsumed into powerful American firms: AI specialist DeepMind was purchased by Google in 2014, while Arm is currently subject of a takeover bid by US chipmaker NVIDIA. Although this isn’t as much of a concern for the security state, given that the US is a close ally of the UK and Europe, the DGAP report found that 54% of European stakeholders (including those from the private and public sectors, and civil society), thought that the EU should aim to track a third course, between the US and China, compared to 46% who believed the EU should move closer to the US on the technology front.

UK technology strategy: become an “innovation superpower”

By 2030, China plans to overtake the US to become the world leader in AI. A recent report from the US government-appointed National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence predicted that it was on track to achieve this

By the same year, the integrated review says the UK technology strategy is to become an innovation “superpower”. At least £6.6bn of UK defence funding over the next four years will be allocated to research and development to try to achieve this. Although this investment will be dwarfed by China and the US, the ambition is to create “thriving ecosystems” in key areas. The top picks for technologies that the UK could meaningfully hope to compete on are quantum computing, engineering biology (including gene-editing), and AI. 

But a recent report from the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee warned that 5G was not a one-off in terms of technology issues set to plague the UK. It said that the lack of diversification and dearth of western alternatives to components and equipment produced in the Far East is a problem replicated in various sectors such as quantum computing and AI. 

“There isn’t one ‘security of technology’ problem but several, albeit they are interrelated,” says Devanny. “There is strategic dominance of a sector, or the manufacture of key components or products, but there are also wider issues about regulations and standards, and the risk that competition between states undermines global security, for example in cyberspace.”

The solution? R&D funding for universities

Professor of Global Politics and Cybersecurity at UCL, Madeline Carr, identifies another issue that could impede the UK’s plans. She says that although the UK has a world-leading higher education sector, the disparity in the scale of investment compared to China “is becoming quite concerning”.

“The neoliberalisation of UK universities contrasts with state investment in Chinese universities and research institutes,” says Carr, pointing out that the US government played a crucial role in investing in the technologies that served as the basis for the modern-day internet – a lesson she says the West now seems to have forgotten.

“Investment in world-leading research and support for research teams is at the heart of UK higher education. But in a post-Brexit world, in which research funding is under threat, questions arise as to how long the UK can maintain its global leadership in technology.”

Home page photo by Jarretera/Shutterstock.

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