This composite photo taken on Dec. 9, 2016 shows a satellite-to-earth link established between quantum satellite "Micius" and the quantum teleportation experiment platform in Ali, Tibet Autonomous Region.
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Europe must end its quantum technology research with China

Quantum technology, the immensely fast and powerful successor to digital technologies, is now moving out of the lab. Jeroen Groenewegen-Lau says Brussels must recognize the security and military risks of research collaboration with China in the field.

The US and China have made life tough for Europe by extending their tech-war to quantum technologies that could one day render computers exponentially faster than today’s digital models. In May, the US government took a clear stand against collaboration with China in this field by adding all the major Chinese players to its “Entity List” of foreign organizations and individuals restricted from buying US products. As a result, some European researchers now find themselves working with Chinese partners blacklisted by Washington.

This puts European research and research policy in an obvious pickle. When China’s quantum satellite Micius enabled the world’s first quantum-encrypted virtual teleconference between researchers in Beijing and Vienna in 2019, this groundbreaking project was celebrated as a shining example of collaboration in an extremely costly field of frontier science. As these Chinese researchers can no longer source US-made components, their European partners are exposed to legal and political risks if they make up for this deficit.

While digital computers carry information in individual “bits” marked 1 or 0, quantum technology uses quantum bits, or qubits, that can represent multiple combinations of 1 and 0 simultaneously. This enables quantum computers to calculate, for example, all possible paths through a maze at the same time, not one at a time. Such power brings opportunity and risk. NATO earlier this year called quantum technologies “potentially revolutionary and disruptive” and classed them as “an element of strategic competition” with rival states.

Preventing technology leakage is top of the EU Commission’s agenda

Preventing so-called technology leakage was top of the European Commission’s agenda when it in late 2023 named quantum technology as one of four critical fields it wanted to protect. Brussels has yet to publish a promised risk assessment, but the US blacklisting and the NATO warning should have made it clear to the Commission that Europe has to exclude Chinese partners from publicly funded quantum-technology projects. Security and military applications are potentially so transformative that there is no other approach to take.

European efforts to restrict technology leakage should take inspiration from nuclear science, a field in which collaboration with Chinese and other differently-minded partners is only possible in a handful of experimental physics projects. The European Quantum Flagship project – one of the EU’s most ambitious research initiatives – and national undertakings in Germany, France, the Netherlands and other states can easily use funding to steer European research teams into limiting knowledge sharing with Chinese research organizations.

Critical quantum components should be declared dual-use

Europe should also increase control over the export of critical components for quantum computers to China. All European countries should follow Spain, France and the UK in declaring these items dual-use, forcing exporters to apply for permits for components that can have military as well as civilian uses. As much equipment is too widely used for control through a dual-use lists, Europe should also add policy tools so that, like the US, it can restrict exports to companies and research institutions known to work against its interests.

This would be timely as quantum research is moving out of the lab. The ground-breaking quantum computer Wukong, made by US-blacklisted Origin Quantum, in May joined China’s national supercomputing network, an effort to pool resources to build technological self-reliance. QuantumCTek, the other major quantum company on the US entity list, in 2023 said its quantum encryption services were used by over 700,000 clients. Both companies have pledged to soon deliver technologies that will give China a scientific and military edge.

Europe is well positioned to profit from quantum technology’s power

Taking a clear stance on the risks of quantum technologies will also enable Europe to better compete in the field. More than in digital technologies like artificial intelligence, Europe is well positioned to profit from the technology’s power – optimizing flight routes or supply chains, simulating chemical and biological processes at the atomic level. Long-term investment in basic quantum research not only led to a Nobel Prize in 2022, but has spawned quantum valleys in München and Lower Saxony, a quantum delta in the Netherlands, and the “QuantAlps” around Grenoble, to name but a few clusters

Developing these ecosystems will increase Europe’s relevance and agency in global tech competition. This will require a mixture of measures to protect and promote quantum technologies that resonate with Europe’s research and business communities. Although it will probably take a decade or more for applications to start making an impact, Europe needs this time to prepare for the technology and its geopolitical implications. Excluding Chinese partners from publicly funded projects will be a painful but necessary first step.