June 24, 2020

“It is important to comprehensively strengthen the training of troops and prepare for war”. With these very words,  China’s Dictator-President Xi Jinping announced his intentions to the world in a speech last month. China is preparing for conflict, the question only remains what form it will take.

China’s top diplomat Wang Yi has already said that the US and China now stand at the “brink of a new Cold War”. But this time America faces a far stronger enemy, and the prize at hand is even greater.

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The old Cold War was essentially an intercontinental nuclear arms race between the USSR and the USA, a balance of terror that came to be known by the acronym MAD — Mutually Assured Destruction. After the near-catastrophe of the Cuban missile crisis, this hugely expensive military competition led to a stalemate that allowed for diplomacy to resurface, and eventually for Gorbachev’s Perestroika reforms.

The US won the first Cold War, largely due to its rival’s economic ineptitude, and afterwards political scholar Francis Fukuyama was so jubilant that he somewhat prematurely declared the End of History. Not Quite.

But if the old Cold War was a nuclear arms race, then Cold War II is a race for quantum supremacy. Control over Big Data determines which of the world’s superpowers emerges triumphant, because to reliably master quantum supremacy is to master the world.

Last October, US technology giant Google announced that it had built a quantum computer that performed calculations in 200 seconds that would have taken a conventional supercomputer 10,000 years to perform. What this could mean for human civilisation is unprecedented. A stable quantum computer with that much computing power would transform complex financial risk management into child’s play, take years off pharmaceutical research and development, leave vast amounts of personal data open to manipulation, and trigger a revolution in artificial intelligence and machine learning, which in turn would give modern militaries unmatched advantage in war.

Most crucially, a powerful quantum computer able to shave 10,000 years off its calculations would render previously unbreakable internet encryption useless, and replace it with unbreakable quantum encryption. Quantum calculations would be able to crack any current encryption code in existence. It follows, therefore, that whichever nation masters quantum supremacy first could instantly hack the entire internet, from the highly personal information of world leaders to every nation’s state bank encryption.

Whereas classical computers store and transmit information in bits — binary states of 0 or 1 — a quantum bit (or a “qubit“) can occupy both 1 and 0 at the same time, enabling exponentially greater simultaneous calculations. The leap forward this represents is akin to the difference between an abacus and modern computers. To put this into context, a quantum computer with ‘only’ 500 qubits would be able to encode more bits of information than there are atoms in the observable universe. Let there be no doubt that, if reliably achieved, quantum supremacy changes the world.

This is why the US and China are in a race to determine who will first achieve quantum supremacy. And just as in the old Cold War, the economy will be a decisive factor. In August last year, the US Department of the Army issued a request for information on quantum technologies for ‘Threat Military Applications’, stating that “A global race has ensued to exploit and operationalise quantum technologies for the use of military effects.”

In December 2018, President Trump authorised the National Quantum Initiative Act (NQI), providing for $1.2b (£1b) to be invested in quantum technology over five years. Trump then signed an Executive Order to establish a National Quantum Initiative Advisory Committee composed of 22 experts from industry, research and federal agencies.

But China also has an awesome quantum programme to match its rival. President Xi  has funded a multi-billion dollar quantum computing initiative  aiming to achieve significant breakthroughs by 2030. In November 2018, China Electronics Technology Group Corporation (CETC), the country’s largest defence electronics company, unveiled a prototype quantum radar that it claims can detect stealth aircraft in flight.

Chinese researchers also claim to have built a satellite that can send quantum-entangled encrypted messages between distant locations. Meanwhile, a team of researchers at the US Army Research Laboratory in Adelphi, Maryland, is working on a similar approach called quantum teleportation.

Though China apparently suffers from a skills shortage hampering her companies’ attempts to supersede their U.S. competitors, a January 2019 Worldwide Threat Assessment report to the Senate  concluded that the US lead in science and technology had been significantly eroded, as China rapidly catches up.

China has the funds, and is biding its time. Meanwhile, Beijing’s key aim is to disrupt its rivals as the country rises to supremacy, increasing the risks of the ‘Thucydides trap’.

Last week, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison revealed ongoing and multiple state-backed cyber attacks on a wide range of the country’s systems. The attackers primarily used a tactic called “remote code execution vulnerability”, which involves hackers attempting to insert their own software code into a vulnerable system like a server, in order to steal information. Cyber-security experts have said that some of the same computer code and tactics used in these cyber-attacks were also used in a February 2019 hack into Parliament House, also blamed on China.

Beijing has also imposed tariffs on Australian barley, stopped buying Australian beef and urged Chinese tourists and students to avoid the country, after Morrison called for an independent inquiry into the coronavirus.

Sydney’s cyber-attack was deemed serious enough for the Australian PM to confirm that he “spoke to Boris Johnson last night”. But Britain is also beset by problems with potential Chinese spytech, largely of our own making. The US security services have long warned us  that Chinese 5G equipment from Huawei poses a spying threat. The Chinese state is suspected of inserting “hidden backdoors” into Huawei’s 5G equipment to spy on data passed through mobile and data networks.

Google’s former Chairman and CEO Eric Schmidt, who is now chairman of the Pentagon’s Defence Innovation Board, reaffirmed this month that “There’s no question that Huawei has engaged in some practices that are not acceptable in national security”.

He compared Huawei to “signals intelligence” – or spy agencies – and said that information “from Huawei routers has ultimately ended up in hands that would appear to be the state”. However it happened, he said, “we’re sure it happened”.

To protect China’s Huawei deal from being rescinded, Beijing has unleashed a series of economic threats against Britain. The state-backed Global Times warned that the British economy faces “substantial damage” if Boris Johnson’s government did not change course on Huawei as well on the political situation in Hong Kong.

Beijing, it said, would “strike back… where the UK steps out of line”. Citing British operations in China, in particular the HSBC bank, as well as Chinese investment at a nuclear plant in Somerset, the editorial said Britain “does not have many cards to play” and “further moves to cut co-operation could lead to the UK shooting itself in its own foot”. In response, in a review called Project Defend, Downing Street is now investigating how to reduce reliance on China for critical products.

In response to China’s threats to Britain, the US State Department issued what only a few years ago would have been considered a shockingly bullish reply.

“The United States stands with our allies and partners against the Chinese Communist Party’s coercive bullying tactics,” it stated: “Shenzhen-based Huawei is an extension of the Chinese Communist Party’s surveillance state. Beijing’s aggressive behavior shows why countries should avoid economic overreliance on China and should guard their critical infrastructure from CCP influence. Australia, Denmark, and other free nations have recently faced pressure from CCP interests to bow to China’s political wishes. The United States stands ready to assist our friends in the U.K. with any needs they have.”

China’s cyber warfare is also evident on Twitter, the social media company disclosing that it had discovered hundreds of thousands of accounts linked to state disinformation operations. The People’s Republic was exposed as running the largest operation, followed by Russia and Turkey, using manipulation to spread pro-Beijing propaganda and pushing deceptive narratives about the political dynamics in Hong Kong.

Similar to Iran, China has also been engaging in ‘hostage diplomacy’. Chinese courts sentenced Australian Cam Gillespie to death for drug smuggling, seven years after his arrest, and also increasing the sentence of a convicted Canadian drug smuggler from life imprisonment to death, shortly after Huawei Director Meng Wanzhou was detained in Canada. Two Canadians, a former diplomat and a businessman, were also arrested in China on allegations of espionage after Meng’s arrest.

India, another US ally, has been experiencing increased tensions along its 2,500 mile disputed Himalayan border with China. In one of the worst incidents for years, up to 20 Indian soldiers were killed last week in skirmishes with Chinese counterparts.

The conflict between these two rival nuclear powers largely centres on the effects of climate change on the glaciers. Roughly 47% of the water used by India comes from the river Ganges, fed by the Kosi river rising in Chinese-controlled Tibet. As a result, both countries are building dams in order to better control the most vital of resources.

To make matters more complicated, and volatile, this border dispute also involves a third nuclear power in the form of Pakistan.

President Trump has offered American mediation over the border dispute, but the move was largely interpreted as being hostile to China. Meanwhile US Secretary of State Pompeo recently confronted China’s foreign minister Yang Jiechi with a list of China’s actions around the globe. “I ticked through a few of them,” he said: “Hong Kong, Tibet, Xinjiang, what they’re doing in India, what they’ve done in the economic zones along the Philippines and Malaysia and Indonesia and Vietnam, the coercion on Australia.”

Yet the US does not have the strength to fight the new cold war alone, and it will require a new NATO-style containment and security policy for Asia, whereas until recently, most European nations had not been alert to the threat posed by an increasingly assertive China.

This has led to a particularly insidious and weak policy response, barely disguised as typical and unoriginal European anti-Americanism, but dressed up as realpolitik. “Analysts have long talked about the end of an American-led system and the arrival of an Asian century,” the European Union’s Foreign Policy chief Josep Borrell Fontelles stated: “This is now happening in front of our eyes… the pressure to choose sides is growing. As the EU, we should follow our own interests and values and avoid being instrumentalised by one or the other.”

French Foreign Minister Yves Le Drian declared in the French Senate that “regarding China, I do not think we should be locked into a logic of confrontation bipolar world. To not start a second Cold War we must affirm Europe’s autonomy”.

Indeed, Macron’s chief diplomatic advisor Emmanuelle Bonne is reported to have confirmed to Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi about “France’s readiness to step up strategic communication with China” assuring China that “France respects China’s sovereignty, appreciates the sensitivity of Hong Kong-related issues, and has no intention of interfering in Hong Kong affairs.”

Germany’s powerful business lobbies are also drawn towards China, while Italy considers herself a “most trusted ally” to the country. Chinese investment in infrastructural projects like the high-speed rail link from Greece to Budapest, also presents economic and political vulnerabilities due to China’s Belt and Road initiative.

But those in Europe who argue that the continent’s interests lie in “remaining neutral” while this US-China Cold War II unfolds, are deluding themselves and everyone else. They seem not to have yet realised, blissfully wish to ignore, or indeed wilfully mislead others about the fact that ‘deciding’ which side to take is a choice we simply no longer have.

Through its cyber espionage, aggressive domination of supply chains, and belligerent domestic political and foreign policies, China has made that choice for us.

Although some may wish to ignore it, or make the argument for a parochial ‘national hobbitism’, the stakes are too high to avoid choosing a side.

Attaining quantum supremacy changes everything, and whoever masters it will have instant access to, and domination of, the rest of the world for the foreseeable future. If China wins that struggle, the sort of organ harvesting, social-credit enforcing, Uighur-Muslim interning, dark tyranny that governs most of the Chinese mainland will come to dominate the rest of the world.

By this, I do not mean to imply that we should go to war with China. Of course not. But we must at the very least recognise that we are in the midst of a new Cold War, and this will help us formulate appropriate policy responses with our eyes open. Quantum supremacy changes everything. Similar to Tolkien’s One Ring, it is a power too great to be wielded by one man in Beijing alone. If this were to happen, global democracy could be in permanent retreat.

That was the harsh lesson learned by Bilbo Baggins, when he left his Shire in support of the free world. And even though the Hobbits were initially oblivious to it, the battle eventually came to them regardless. The rise of Mordor was simply too powerful and too dangerous an event to countenance, even for the little people in the Shire.