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Japan eating China’s quantum encryption dust

  • May 16, 2020
  • , The Japan News , 5:59 p.m.
  • English Press

It is crucial that Japan produces and possesses cutting-edge technologies that warrant protection from other nations in the economic security field.


In early February, Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi received a letter from U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun. The letter stated decisive action was necessary to ensure Japan and the United States remained atop particle physics research, and expressed strong support for advancing a plan for Japan to host the International Linear Collider (ILC).


The ILC consists of a massive linear accelerator that reproduces the conditions that prevailed immediately after the universe was created. Iwate Prefecture and other entities are aiming to host such a research facility in the Kitakami mountain range in the Tohoku region. If this international research hub became a reality, it is estimated that several thousand of the world’s top researchers would work there.


The Japanese government has shown an interest in the project. However, it has not decided whether to invite the ILC to be built in the nation, due to reasons such as concern over the financial burden: Japan would shoulder half of the total estimated cost of at least ¥800 billion.


Biegun’s letter urged Japan to make a decision on the ILC. The United States is extremely worried that Japan’s dillydallying could allow China to swoop in and snatch the collider project.


The latter half of the letter stated that China is considering setting up a similar facility, and warned that if its construction was announced, it could quickly become a dominant location for work by the world’s scientists.


Research cut-backs


China has already overtaken Japan in advanced technologies in other fields. One prime example is quantum encryption communications, which have been dubbed the “ultimate cryptography” and are necessary for securely conveying and receiving confidential information.


In the early 2000s, the National Institute of Information and Communications Technology (NICT) worked closely with Japanese electronics companies to spearhead research in this field. In 2010, this resulted in Japan completing the world’s third quantum encryption communication network, after those of the United States and Europe. This network, which linked Tokyo’s Otemachi district with Koganei, western Tokyo, was the first to successfully send videos using quantum cryptography.


However, a flurry of companies cut back their research in the early 2010s, as the financial crisis triggered by the collapse of Lehman Brothers kept share prices in the doldrums. These companies said they could not see any value in the quantum cryptography market in the near term.


Around this time, China stepped into the breach with its research. On Aug. 16, 2016, China launched the world’s first quantum encryption communication satellite, and in July 2017 China announced it had conducted the world’s first demonstration of satellite-to-ground quantum encryption telecommunication. In September 2017, Beijing declared an about 2,000-kilometer quantum encryption communication network between Beijing and Shanghai was ready for use. This network, one of the world’s largest, involved optical fiber and a string of relay stations.


Masahiro Takeoka, director of NICT’s Quantum ICT Advanced Development Center, acknowledges the strides China has made.


“China has piled up impressive achievements, and they are building up the expertise needed to put this technology into practical use,” Takeoka said.


At the forefront of this research have been China-born researchers who studied in the United States, Europe and elsewhere.


In 2013, a Chinese researcher who had been leading quantum research at NICT also moved to a research institute at the Chinese Academy of Sciences. “We have lost considerable expertise and technological knowledge,” an NICT source said.


Making up lost ground


Japan is scrambling to claw back this lost ground. The government earmarked a total of about ¥34 billion for quantum research in this fiscal year’s initial budget and the fiscal 2019 supplementary budget. This is double the about ¥16 billion set aside in the fiscal 2019 initial budget.


The Defense Ministry and the National Police Agency also will start trial operation of a quantum encryption communication network. A quantum cryptography device produced by Toshiba Corp. is considered the most likely centerpiece for this system. “Its transmission speed and performance is far ahead of what other countries possess,” one researcher purred to The Yomiuri Shimbun.


However, Japan’s effort to catch China remains puny, compared with the more than ¥100 billion investment plan launched by the United States and Europe.


The quantum technology innovation strategy compiled by the government in January pulled no punches about what was at stake. The report said unless changes were made, Japan would “significantly lag” other countries in the development of quantum technologies, and that this could jeopardize the foundation of the nation’s future growth and development and the people’s safety and peace of mind.


“Now it’s not only a case of protecting the technologies we already have,” an insider at the government’s National Security Secretariat said in a tone of self-mockery. “Unless we nurture new technologies, we eventually will not have any technologies left to protect.”

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