China’s Quantum Ambition Meets US Counterblow

December 5, 2021 Updated: December 8, 2021

Last month, the U.S. Commerce Department’s Bureau of Industry and Security (BIS) added eight technology entities based in China to its trade blacklist for engaging in activities contrary to national security. The move was enacted to prevent the diversion of U.S. technologies to China’s military advancement, Secretary of Commerce Gina M. Raimondo said in a statement.

The Department of Commerce said the sanctions are part of its “efforts to prevent U.S. emerging technologies from being used for China’s quantum computing efforts that support military applications, such as counter-stealth and counter-submarine applications, and the ability to break encryption or develop unbreakable encryption.” The sanctioned China-based technology entities “support the military modernization of the People’s Liberation Army and/or acquire and attempt to acquire U.S. origin-items in support of military applications,” according to the department.

It also stated that the sanctions will restrict exports to China’s producers of electronics that support the Chinese army’s military modernization efforts as well.

It wasn’t until recently that quantum computing began attracting attention in the scientific community. Only a small group of scientists really have a good understanding of it in theory, let alone its applications for military use. So, when Chinese scientists claimed that they had made great progress in quantum entanglement, quantum information, and quantum computers, many U.S. and Western experts couldn’t help questioning their credibility.

In August 2016, China announced that it had successfully launched the world’s first quantum satellite, part of China’s “Quantum Experiments at Space Scale” research project. Less than one year later, Chinese leading quantum physicist Pan Jianwei used the quantum satellite to demonstrate entanglement with satellite-to-ground total summed lengths of 1,600 kilometers (994 miles) to 2,400 kilometers (1,491 miles), as well as entanglement distribution of more than 1,200 kilometers between receiver stations. For that reason, Nature named Pan as one of its “10 people” who mattered in science for that year, dubbing him the “Father of Quantum.”

In June 2020, Pan’s team published a paper in Nature claiming that they had materialized the entanglement-based quantum key distribution between two ground stations separated by 1,120 kilometers (696 miles) without the need for trusted relays. That means that even if someday China’s satellites were controlled by a foreign country, its communication would be encrypted and uninterrupted. It also opened the door to the “quantum internet” that’s almost absolutely unhackable by all existing means.

Earlier this year, Chinese scientists once again stunned the world with news that they had built the world’s fastest programmable quantum computer, which they said can solve problems that are daunting for current “classical” computers.

One of the quantum computing systems is reportedly 1 million times faster than its nearest competitor, Google’s Sycamore, a quantum processor. The scientists claimed that the superconducting quantum computer is 10 million times faster than the world’s fastest supercomputer. Another photonic quantum computer, which is based on light, can carry out calculations 100 trillion times faster than the fastest existing supercomputer.

Thus far, quantum computing and quantum satellite communication, including what Chinese scientists claim they have achieved, are more theoretical, experimental, and demonstrative. Researchers and experts believe it will take quite some time to see the technology come to maturity. Although China keeps showing the world its “quantum leaps” in the field—apparently trying to make an impression that it’s already the most advanced country in the race—there’s a lot of discussion about China’s real capabilities and when it will be able to use them to pose existential threats to the world.

Booz Allen Hamilton, a U.S. tech consulting firm supporting business, government, and military organizations, recently released a report: “Chinese Threats in the Quantum Era.” The report states that while quantum computers are still largely in research labs and at least a decade away from being ready for wider use, the race for supremacy is on. It predicted that in the coming decades quantum computers have great potential to reshape numerous industries, such as pharmaceuticals and materials science, as well as boost the speed and power of artificial intelligence.

It noted that since 2016, China has emerged as a major player in quantum computing. Although China still lags behind the United States in many aspects in the field and is unlikely to overtake the United States and Europe to play a leading role in basic research and development, it may be the first country to take advantage of primal quantum computing for practical purposes, including in the military.

According to the report, the Chinese government has publicly described quantum computing as a key strategic technology for its economy and national security and managed to narrow the gap with the United States with large-scale state-sponsored support.

The report states that quantum-driven cybercrime seems inevitable, projecting that Chinese threat groups will likely soon collect sensitive encrypted data.

“Encrypted data with intelligence longevity, like biometric markers, covert intelligence officer and source identities, social security numbers, and weapons designs, may be increasingly stolen under the expectation that they can eventually be decrypted,” the report reads.

By the end of the 2020s, Chinese threat groups will likely collect data that enables quantum simulators to discover new economically valuable materials, pharmaceuticals, and chemicals, according to the report.

Unlike conventional computers, in which the most basic unit of information is a bit that can have a value of either 1 or 0 called binary codes, and the data is stored in the form of 1s and 0s, a quantum computer’s most basic unit is a qubit—thus far the smallest particles in the universe known to man—which can be 1 and 0 at the same time or in any position between. Quantum computers make use of the special properties of the qubit to perform many different calculations simultaneously, thus having a much faster calculation speed. All of the encrypted data currently deemed safe can be cracked within minutes or seconds with them.

Quantum computers can undermine all current public-key encryption methods. It can also generate unhackable encrypted systems, making all known deciphering methods meaningless. If Beijing establishes this kind of nearly unbreakable “quantum internet” in the future, it would embolden the communist regime to launch more cyberattacks on other countries without fear of retaliation.

If China’s reported “quantum radar” is put into military use in the coming years, it would be disastrous for all current U.S. advanced stealth fighters and bombers, such as the F-35 and the B-2: They would be easily detected in air, and even their models could be visually identifiable. Suppose China’s “quantum compass” becomes a reality, the embarrassing accident of the USS Connecticut, a Seawolf-class nuclear-powered submarine, hitting an uncharted seamount in October wouldn’t happen to a Chinese submarine, because the quantum computers would be able to provide the crew with a clear view of its underwater surroundings.

Perhaps it’s the Pentagon’s realization that U.S. military dominance could collapse in face of China’s fast development in quantum technology that made the Biden administration decide to take immediate action against the Chinese regime in this area.

In response, Beijing strongly opposed Washington’s latest sanctions on its companies, alleging that the United States “uses the catch-all concept of national security and abuses state power to suppress and restrict Chinese enterprises in all possible means.”

U.S. companies are prohibited from exporting products to the entities on the trade blast, known as the “entity list,” unless they have the U.S. government’s explicit permission. That means that they have to apply for a special license. But normally, those applications will be denied.

However, experts are concerned that U.S. sanctions aren’t strong enough or fast enough to slow down China’s ambitious plan to surpass the United States technologically and militarily.

But they believe it might be only the beginning. It always takes time for the government to accurately locate what U.S. technology, equipment, and components China has and will secretly import for its pernicious applications. The Trump administration’s sanctions on Chinese telecom giant Huawei, which were initially imposed more than two years ago and expanded to include a ban on U.S. chip technology to the company, is a good example of effective U.S. action that has thwarted the threat posed by Huawei.

With the Biden administration building upon Trump’s campaign targeting Chinese companies that are siphoning U.S. technology to aid the communist regime, it’s very likely that Washington will continue its efforts to pinpoint threat actors and act accordingly in the coming months.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Frank Dong
Frank Dong is a journalist with more than 20 years of experience.