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October 26, 2022updated 09 Feb 2023 8:18am

Can the US stop China’s rise in quantum computing?

China has long prepared itself for export controls from the US, but current measures are already biting.

By Afiq Fitri

An old adage says, “if you can’t change the rules, change the game” and that is just what quantum computing does for society. It has the potential to change the world when the machines become powerful enough for quantum supremacy. There is a war raging between China and the US to see who gets there first with the US using its dominance in classical computing to gain an advantage.

Last week, the United States launched its latest salvo against China in the simmering tech war between the two countries. According to Bloomberg, the White House is mulling new export controls aiming to restrict China’s access to artificial intelligence and quantum technology and equipment. But whether the US can effectively curb China and its rise in quantum computing at a time when the latter appears to be closing the gap in quantum supremacy remains an open question.

US is challenging China and its rise in quantum computing
Quantum computing has the potential to change the way we create new materials and understand the universe (Photo by Bartlomiej K. Wroblewski/Shutterstock)

News of the quantum-related restrictions comes on the heels of another round of export controls announced earlier this month when the US cut off China’s access to American-made technology required to manufacture high-end logic and memory chips. Details of these new export controls on quantum computing are sparse and there is no indication of specific technologies that would be targeted. But a US government list of critical and emerging technologies that could be subject to export controls reveals that this might include the materials, isotopes, and fabrication techniques for quantum devices, post-quantum cryptography, as well as technologies involved in quantum sensing and networking. If these export controls are approved, it would signal an escalation in the US-China tech war and a more aggressive stance on quantum computing rivalry.

In May this year, the White House issued a memorandum which directed US federal agencies to ensure that the country maintained its global leadership in quantum information science, without explicitly mentioning China. The memo did however, outline the security implications of an adversary gaining the advantage in quantum computing, specifically on how a “cryptanalytically relevant quantum computer (CRQC)” would be capable of breaking the public-key cryptography on digital systems in the US. “When it becomes available, a CRQC could jeopardise civilian and military communications, undermine supervisory and control systems for critical infrastructure, and defeat security protocols for most internet-based financial transactions,” Biden said.

Todd R. Weiss, analyst at Futurum Research believes that these new quantum-related export controls would represent “a true deepening of the divide” between the US and China. “These are two countries that have little trust for each other across a wide range of issues and the potential power of quantum computing could allow so many new problems from Chinese espionage and other threats,” he said. “So, of course, the US wants to provide safeguards and protections with this technology if it can do so.”

China ‘racing ahead’

But whether the US can meaningfully prevent China’s progress in quantum computing after years of targeted policies intended to strengthen the latter’s domestic capabilities is debatable. Evidence suggests that the horse has already bolted. In May 2021, a group of Chinese quantum scientists led by “China’s Einstein” Pan Jianwei reportedly developed a superconducting quantum processor called “Zu Chongzhi” that is supposed to be a million times faster than Google’s quantum computer Sycamore. Seven months later, another group of Chinese quantum scientists developed a quantum computer called Nine Chapter 2, tailored to handle specific problems and is claimed to be 100 quadrillion (1017) times faster than the regular supercomputer. That China can achieve such breakthroughs despite existing export controls suggests that the country is well-prepared for future foreign blockades of critical technologies, or is at least keen to maintain the appearance of being able to do so.

The sheer amount of money being poured into quantum computing in China certainly suggests the country is on the path to self-sufficiency. According to a report published by McKinsey earlier this year, China currently outstrips its Western competitors in terms of public funding to boost research into quantum computing. Some $15bn has been dedicated to this effort in China, compared to $7bn by the EU and the US, which recently allocated $2bn from the recently passed CHIPS and Science Act.

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Much of the funding in China is allocated to the building of massive research centres spread across the country. In Hefei, the capital of Anhui Province, construction of the Center for Excellence on Quantum Information and Quantum Physics - built in the shape of Einstein’s light-quantum equation E=hv - is reportedly underway and soon to be completed. A “quantum valley” is also being planned in the city of Jinan in eastern China with the aim of being operational by 2025.

Apart from these publicly funded research centres, the intertwined relationship between academia, the private and public sectors is also a key node in China’s progress in quantum computing. Pan Jianwei is perhaps the best example of the country’s “Thousand Talents Plan”, announced back in 2008 to lure top Chinese scientists educated at Western universities to return to their home country. After studying in Heidelberg, Pan moved back to China to set up a laboratory at the University of Science and Technology of China in Hefei city, which is reportedly visited regularly by President Xi Jinping.

Tech Monitor has also previously reported on the blurred lines between China’s academia and the state, and how the former plays a critical role in the country’s technological dominance. “There was also a realisation that academia should work together with industry to really deploy real-world systems and have their work integrated into industry products,” explained Professor Liu Jiangchuan, founder of edge computing service provider Jiangxing AI. “That’s why in recent years, you see Chinese universities becoming actively involved in industry product development and you’ll see many university professors serving as advisers, CEOs, or chief scientists in the private sector.”

Circumventing Western restrictions

How state agencies and academia collaborate to circumvent Western export controls and other restrictions, is also revealing. According to the 'Quantum Computing Report', China’s Ministry of Science and Technology explicitly described this as a key target in its 2020 final budget document which mentioned the need to “provide method support for breaking through foreign patent blockade(s), breaking technology monopoly..”.  Yet despite these long-term preparations, it is undoubtedly clear that American export controls are already beginning to bite.

After the news of incoming restrictions on quantum computing exports to China broke, the Financial Times reported that the Chinese chipmaker Yangtze Memory Technologies has asked its American employees in core positions to leave their jobs in order to comply with the new rules. Earlier this week, official Chinese customs data also revealed that chip imports fell by 12.4% in September to total 47.6 billion chip units, compared to 54.3 billion units in September 2021. Data published by the country’s National Bureau of Statistics also showed that domestic chip production fell 16.4% year-on-year to 26.1 billion units.

Quantum-related imports have not been spared. According to CEIC Data, such imports into China in August 2022 have plunged compared to the peaks in November last year. While it is difficult to know exactly the root cause of this decline, Weiss believes that one of these factors “could certainly include a ramping up of China’s own quantum technology products and capabilities”.

Looking ahead, whether these export controls on quantum-related technologies will restrict China’s edge in the field is an open question, but past examples of similar restrictions on critical technologies provide a window into the difficulties involved in monitoring the process. In 2015, the Obama administration prevented the American chipmaker Intel from selling its Xeon chips to Chinese entities such as the National University of Defense Technology. But while this ended direct sales from American companies to the Chinese military, it was “completely ineffective at stopping indirect sales to the shell companies that helped the Chinese military evade export controls,” said Gregory Allen, director of the AI governance project at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies.

Not only did the aforementioned Chinese university build new, advanced supercomputers despite these restrictions, those supercomputers still use Intel’s Xeon chips. Compliance is therefore critical to any US efforts in curbing China’s rise in quantum computing. Their effectiveness would be based on the specifics of the language in such rules and, of course, on how the US could monitor compliance from China,” says Weiss. “Compliance is a huge must-have, I believe, and it may be difficult to gauge compliance with any country, particularly China.”

Read more: China's generative AI revolution is only just beginning

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