China making 'quite significant' strides in supercomputing: Lowy Institute

China netted the highest gains in the 2019 Asia Power Index. In cyber capability, it now almost matches the US and Russia. In renewable energy it dominates.

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US and Russian military cyber capabilities are rated equal top in the Asia Pacific region, with China a very close second, according to the Lowy Institute's second annual Asia Power Index.

"This is by nature opaque, where we're judging the ability of countries to both defend against and commit acts of cyber espionage and attacks," said lead researcher Hervé Lemahieu at the institute last week.

"So what we've done, we've actually gone to a representative sample of experts on cyber capabilities, and we've asked them for both offensive and defensive capabilities."

On this measure, top-ranking US and Russia were given 100 points; China 98; North Korea 72; Singapore and Australia 71; Taiwan and Japan 63; and South Korea and India 52.

As ZDNet has previously reported, North Korea was rated as the most destructive cyber threat in October 2018. In recent months the so-called "hermit kingdom" has continued its attacks on cryptocurrency systems and other financial targets, deployed ransomware, and even distributed malware that harvests Bluetooth data.

While Australia formally announced that it has an offensive cyber capability in 2017, Singapore is rated equally in the cybers.

"Singapore, stealthy Singapore, don't underestimate their cyber capabilities," Lemahieu said.

The Asia Power Index rates 25 regional nations on eight measures: economic resources, military capability, resilience, future resources, diplomatic influence, economic relationships, defence networks, and cultural influence.

Technology is one of the sub-measures that feeds into the economic resources measure, and here the US is still "firmly on top" and therefore setting the benchmark at 100 points. China sits at 78.5.

"China is trending up, but there's a significant differential between the US and China," Lemahieu said.

"Japan is more or less stable in third place [at 55.5]. And then you've got a number of smaller players who are trending up. So South Korea [41.7], Taiwan [41.6], Singapore [39.0], and Australia [36.6]. New Zealand is there as well [27.9]."

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Technology ratings from the Lowy Institute's Asia Power Index

Image: Lowy Institute

America has Nobel Prizes, but China has supercomputers

Two of the so-called "indicators" that feed into the technology sub-measure are number of Nobel Prize laureates in the sciences that a nation produces, and the number of high-end supercomputers it has. It's here that some key differences between nations start to appear.

Nobel Prizes suggest that "the legacy effect of knowledge is long-lasting", while the number of supercomputers may indicate future growth.

"The United States still has a commanding advantage in terms of Nobel laureates in cutting-edge fields of science," Lemahieu said.

"However, supercomputers is a much newer technology, and as a proxy for a whole range or other technologies that are coming forth -- artificial intelligence and the rest -- it's actually fascinating to see that China now has 227 of the world's 500 most powerful supercomputers on the planet, well ahead of the United States on 109," he said.

"The strides that it's made is quite significant, And this is where if you're a middle player it's harder to compete with the scale of the largest countries."

Another indicator is the level of human resources in research and development. China leads again with 1,719,312 persons in R&D; followed by the US with 1,379,977; Japan at 665,556; Russia at 428,884; South Korea at 361,292; and India at 282,994.

R&D spending as a percentage of GDP is further indicator.

"This is where South Korea tops the charts," Lemahieu said, with a spend of 4.24%. North Korea is estimated to be in second place, at 3.50%.

"As South Korea is researching microchips, North Korea is researching the latest intercontinental ballistic missile system, and each to his own," Lemahieu said.

"This is where size matters," he said.

India, for example, can send probes to Mars and to the Moon. Its R&D spending as a percentage of GDP may not be high, but it's such a significant economy that it translates into significant investments, an educated workforce, and a significant number of scientists.

The technology sub-measure also looks at per-capita productivity rates, which indicate a highly industrialised and highly educated workforce; the volume of high-tech exports; the number of satellite launches; and renewable energy.

China is "well ahead" in renewables, generating 1,505,869 GWh per annum, with the US in second place with 590,502 GWh.

"That's partly a reflection of the size of China's economy again, but also I think as a strategic priority, decarbonisation for China is not just some sort of benign good towards acting on climate change," Lemahieu said.

"China recognises that it's far too dependent on fossil fuels. It sources fossil fuels from abroad, it's strategically vulnerable to those transit routes. In part it can offset that with its relationship with Russia, but increasingly it's focusing on its own autonomously derived source of energy, and that's renewable."

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