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US-China Tech Race: Shock and Awe

This is an audio transcript of the FT Tech Tonic podcast episode: US-China Tech Race: Shock and Awe

Demetri Sevastopulo
I mean, I have to be very careful and kind of not get into sourcing at all, but I can just say that I had a tip that China had done something incredible and that it involved space and that the US military was scratching their head.

James Kynge
Demetri Sevastopulo is the FT’s US-China correspondent. In October last year. He landed a massive scoop. The Chinese had tested a weapon that no one knew was possible.

Demetri Sevastopulo
There were some people who said, “No, this story doesn’t make sense. The Chinese couldn’t have done this. The reporting must be wrong.” And so over one or two or three days, I think some people start to think, you know, “Has Demetri got the story right?”

James Kynge
But Demetri had got the story right. What he discovered was that in July last year, China had secretly and successfully tested a hypersonic weapon. Launching it into space where it flew around the world before coming back to Earth at at least five times the speed of sound.

[SOUND OF A ROCKET BEING LAUNCHED]

Demetri Sevastopulo
It was quite amazing. The Chinese launched a Long March rocket, which was carrying something that’s called a hypersonic glide vehicle. And the best way to think of that is it’s almost like a smaller space shuttle, which sits on top of a long-range rocket. So they launched that rocket into space into lower Earth orbit. The rocket with the glider attached, circumnavigated the globe, went all the way around, came back in over the South China Sea towards China. And as it was flying over the South China Sea, the hypersonic glide vehicle actually fires a projectile or a missile which was an incredible achievement because it is not defying the laws of physics, but there are huge constraints that the laws of physics impose on something that’s flying that fast, which make it extremely difficult to fire something from a weapon travelling at that speed. The Chinese accomplished that, and it stunned the Pentagon because the most advanced military scientists in the US military and intelligence community don’t know how to do that.

James Kynge
The test was groundbreaking. A technological feat no one else had accomplished. And it meant that China theoretically had a significant military advantage over the US. But it also demonstrated a bigger point, that Chinese military technology wasn’t just keeping up with the US, in some cases, it was moving past it.

Demetri Sevastopulo
You hear people often say that China steals a lot of intellectual property from the US. They’ve stolen the plans to make fighter jets. That there’s no innovation in China. Which frankly, is an idea that’s been out of date for a very long time. But you know what they did with this hypersonic glide vehicle and weapon is innovation, and no one else has done it. So it just reminded the world that actually, in some areas, China really is ahead.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

James Kynge
This is Tech Tonic from the Financial Times. I’m James Kynge, the FT’s global China editor, and in this season we’re charting the rise of China as a technological superpower and the battle with the US for global technological superiority. In this episode: when the tech race becomes an arms race and how space has become the next frontier of military technology.

[Voice clip from news report]
A race for speed.

[Voice clip from news report]
There’s new concern tonight about China’s military capabilities amid a report the country recently tested a nuclear-capable hypersonic missile.

[Voice clip from news report]
Tonight, China denying reports it test-fired a hypersonic missile.

[Voice clip from news report]
It’s a new breed of superfast missiles designed to evade American nuclear defences.

James Kynge
There are two things that were unique about the weapons system that the Chinese military tested in July 2021. The first was its range.

Demetri Sevastopulo
You can fire hypersonic missiles in different ways. You could fire them from the ground, you could launch them from an aircraft. This one was different because the hypersonic weapon or the hypersonic glide vehicle was on top of a rocket. Now, no one has actually put one of those on a rocket and flown it all the way around the world before and US Strategic Command, which is the part of the US military that oversees its nuclear forces, they were watching this very closely. And it caused huge alarm because it suggested that China has developed this new capability to come towards the US over the South Pole. Most of the US missile defence systems are targeted towards the North Pole. They’re basically to try and destroy an incoming long-range ballistic missile, for example, from North Korea that would come over the Arctic and then come down into US airspace. This new weapon could come over the South Pole.

James Kynge
And here’s another thing that makes hypersonic weapons particularly dangerous.

Demetri Sevastopulo
Hypersonic missiles fly over five times the speed of sound, or Mach five or above. They’re not as fast as ballistic missiles. But the advantage they have is you can manoeuvre them. So the fact that you can manoeuvre this weapon as it comes into the target means it’s much harder to lock on to. It’s much harder to destroy with a missile defence system.

James Kynge
Another shock for the Americans was that China had found a way to actually fire a projectile from their hypersonic glider while it was flying at hypersonic speed.

Demetri Sevastopulo
So if you have the hypersonic glide vehicle or the hypersonic weapon flying at a speed of above Mach five. To fire another missile from that weapon, you have to, you know, open a vent or something like that so that the missile can then be fired from the hypersonic weapon. If you open a vent at such high speed, you know air is going to come in and it is very difficult to engineer the dynamics so that you keep your hypersonic weapon on whatever track it’s supposed to go on and then fire a missile from that. So, you know, people who understand the kind of the technical issues say that that is an incredibly highly advanced technology and it’s something that just has never been mastered before.

James Kynge
When Demetri first broke the story to the world in October, he was met with scepticism from many people in the media, and no one on the Chinese or US sides wanted to comment. The Chinese still deny the test took place, insisting the test was a harmless spaceplane similar to the US Space Shuttle and even US officials stonewalled.

Demetri Sevastopulo
Basically, no one wanted to touch it, so the US government wouldn’t say anything, you know, on the record or on background. I think two weeks roughly after the story broke that General Milley, who’s the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mark Milley, was on a radio programme on an interview, and the interviewer asked him, “You know, FT has reported about this hypersonic weapons test that China conducted. Is it true and can you tell us anything?”

[Voice clip of General Mark Milley]
Well, what you saw, and I don’t want to get too much into the classification of what we saw, but what we saw was a very significant event of a test of a hypersonic weapon system, and it is very concerning. I think I saw in some of the newspapers that they used the term Sputnik moment. I don’t know if it’s quite a Sputnik moment, but I think it’s very close to that.

James Kynge
A Sputnik-like capability. A reference to the Soviet launch of the first satellite in 1957 that sparked the space race. Demetri says China’s dramatic demonstration of its progress in hypersonic weapons has altered the perception of China’s military capabilities and the balance of power between China and the US.

Demetri Sevastopulo
You know, it’s an emerging technology where during the Cold War, it was generally the US that was ahead when it came to technologies like this. And now we have a very serious technology where the US is not only not first, it’s not even first or second.

James Kynge
For Americans already wary of China’s growing military strength. The hypersonic test was unprecedented evidence that America is no longer supreme in all areas of military technology.

Mike Gallagher
I think it should be a wake-up call, a Sputnik moment, whatever historical analogy you want to abuse in order to emphasise the point that we’re not going as fast as we need to in space.

James Kynge
One person worried by China’s development of advanced weapons like hypersonics is Mike Gallagher. He’s a US congressman, a former US marine and a vocal China hawk. He sees the potential for military conflict with China emerging in the near future, and he reckons it will most likely be as a result of China’s claim over Taiwan. President Xi Jinping has made no secret of China’s determination to take control of the island.

Mike Gallagher
I can see hypersonics being used to take out targets on Taiwan proper. I could see them being used to take out targets, US targets in Japan or further out in Guam. I can see hypersonics being used to target naval facilities in southern California. I think the whole world will be a chessboard for Xi Jinping if and when he decides to make a move on Taiwan, and I think this could escalate very quickly.

James Kynge
Earlier this month, in April, the US responded. The FT reported that the US, UK and Australia will work together to develop hypersonic weapons to counter China’s military influence in the Indo-Pacific. But with China already ahead, Mike Gallagher says the US is playing catch-up.

Mike Gallagher
I just think we got complacent, right? Certainly, since the end of the Cold War, we didn’t have anyone breathing down our neck, and we didn’t really start to wake up to the threat posed by Xi Jinping until five or six years after he ascended to power. And then the real shift. And I would argue it’s the biggest shift in US foreign policy since the end of the Cold War was a recognition in 2017 and 2018 that, you know, China is our biggest threat. So I think what you’re seeing now in hypersonics and in other areas is a belated attempt to catch up in a competition that we only realised that we were in and may in some respects be losing five years ago.

James Kynge
China may have tried to keep its hypersonic weapon launch under wraps, but Beijing hasn’t always shied away from occasions to show off its military might.

[Voice clip from news report]
More than 50 warships from the PLA Navy have been conducting one of its largest military drills.

James Kynge
In 2018, China. Held its largest ever military drill in the South China Seas. A parade that was overseen by President Xi Jinping.

[CHINESE AUDIO CLIP]

James Kynge
President Xi Jinping watched the movement of 48 warships and 70+ aircraft before addressing over 10,000 assembled troops. He said it was an opportunity to inspire strength in building a strong nation and military force.

[CHINESE AUDIO CLIP]

James Kynge
The drill underlined China’s growing military heft in the Indo-Pacific, but the global balance of power is not just changing there. Back to the FT’s Demetri.

Demetri Sevastopulo
Space has, you know, in recent years, become increasingly important. There’s a lot of attention on various aspects of the Chinese military, but one of the areas where it’s actually done an awful lot, which doesn’t get as much attention, is in space.

James Kynge
Today, space isn’t just an arena for civilian exploration and scientific research. It’s a place where the Americans and the Chinese are using technology to fight a new type of battle.

Todd Harrison
If you want to be a superpower on the world stage, you’ve got to be able to use space for economic and military advantage.

James Kynge
Todd Harrison is the director of the Aerospace Security Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in the US.

Todd Harrison
I think China has been watching the United States, and what they’ve realised is, you know, there’s two paths they could pursue. One is to create similar space systems for China to give the Chinese the same kind of advantages. Number two is they could pursue counter space weapons to deny the United States its ability to use space.

James Kynge
Todd says the Chinese have pursued both strategies. They’ve built their own networks of satellites like the US, but they’ve also developed technology to stop US satellites in their tracks.

Todd Harrison
From missiles that can shoot down satellites in space and create thousands of pieces of debris at the same time, all the way down to lasers that can blind the sensors on satellites and jammers that can disrupt the communications with satellites. And so that, I think, has done a lot to contribute to the more dangerous, adversarial environment that we see in space today.

James Kynge
The wake-up call in space for the Americans was in 2007, when China first tested an anti-satellite weapon. Blasting a satellite into pieces in near Earth orbit with a missile fired from the ground. And then, in January this year, China appeared to do another thing that grabbed space watchers’ attentions. Demetri Sevastopulo again.

Demetri Sevastopulo
Recently, China made another big advance in space when they had one satellite that was on a particular orbit. It came out of its orbit. It went over to another satellite’s orbit. It basically grabbed that other satellite, which was a damaged satellite that was no longer operating. It removed that satellite. It brought it to another orbit that’s called a graveyard orbit, where you put old satellites. So that capability was also amazing because in a conflict, is it possible that Chinese satellite could jump across and grab an American spy satellite and basically, you know, throw it into the graveyard orbit?

James Kynge
Todd Harrison says this kind of capability to move US satellites around has potentially worrying implications for American security on Earth.

Todd Harrison
The thing I’d be most worried about are our missile warning satellites that we have in space. We have a very small number of satellites that sit in a very high orbit and they stare at the Earth and they look for missile launches. And that’s a key component of our nuclear deterrent because that’s what makes our nuclear deterrent credible is that we could detect someone else’s launch of ICBMs, intercontinental ballistic missiles, against us. And we could launch ours in response before their missiles have time to hit us and take out our nuclear capabilities.

James Kynge
But a lot of the nervousness from the US at least comes from the secrecy around China’s space projects. The Americans simply don’t know what the Chinese are up to. That secrecy and mutual distrust is not limited to space technology with potential military applications. China and the US are both pursuing civilian space programmes, too. And even here, there’s little sign of collaboration or co-operation.

Todd Harrison
Even during the worst parts of the Cold War, the United States was co-operating with the Soviet Union on civil space programmes for science and exploration.

[Audio clip]
Apollo Houston I got two messages for you. Moscow is go for docking. Houston is go for docking.

Todd Harrison
And it actually opened up a lot of valuable channels of communication between the United States and the Soviet Union, so we could better understand what each other were doing in space.

[Voice clip from news report]
An American Apollo spacecraft and a Soviet Soyuz spacecraft prepare to join in Earth orbit . . . 

Todd Harrison
With China. We’ve never had that same level of partnership and cooperation. Part of that is because Congress passed a law that put, you know, pretty severe constraints on the ability of Nasa to co-operate with China. Part of the intent of that was to slow China’s progress and make it harder for them to develop space capabilities. Well, that has not worked. China has, you know, only accelerated its development of space capabilities in the past decade. And now we see China building a space station of its own, developing a lunar exploration programme of its own.

James Kynge
China is a relatively new player in space. Todd Harrison estimates they are today 10 to 15 years behind the US in terms of space technology, but catching up fast. He says it’s the civilian space programmes that could be the focus of US-Chinese competition in space over the coming years. And who wins that race could determine who leads and who writes the rules of space exploration.

Todd Harrison
Nasa is reorienting itself to focus on the Moon and the Artemis programme to send humans back to the Moon, and China has developed its own competing lunar programme. There are a lot of things that have not been established yet of what acceptable behaviour on the Moon is going to be. How do you operate? How do you operate safely? How do you provide due regard for others? How do you explore for minerals and resources on the Moon? And so I think that’s going to be one of the interesting things to watch over the coming decade, is how these international coalitions develop.

James Kynge
For advocates of space exploration, it doesn’t have to be this way. Civilian space programmes, they argue, should be an opportunity to build trust between China and the US,

Robert Zubrin
Working together on space exploration programmes. This is a way to at least condition the atmosphere to try to keep things on a friendly basis.

James Kynge
Robert Zubrin is an aerospace engineer and president of the Mars Society in the US. He was an early advocate of landing humans on Mars. An ambition now shared by Nasa and organisations in China. He says civilian space projects don’t have to be anything more than a friendly competition.

Robert Zubrin
I was actually in Leningrad when we landed on the Moon.

[Audio clip from the moon landing]
And one small step for man . . . 

Robert Zubrin
I was only in high school at the time, but I managed to tag along with a group of college students who went to Russia to learn Russian. And I happened to be there in July 1969 when we landed on the Moon. And while the leadership may have been, you know, having kittens, the people I met, they thought it was great. You know, the Russians I met, you know, patting me on the back, “molodets”, it was like “attaboy”. We had excelled in a sport that they could appreciate. So this is something we can share with China, this joy of exploring the solar system.

James Kynge
Zubrin says the prospect of China eventually matching the US in space technology is inevitable. And it’s not just the Chinese government that is responsible for the progress. China is developing a private space industry, too. In 2019, he visited China to witness the test launch of a rocket developed by a private Chinese company.

Robert Zubrin
It was the reusable first stage they were testing. And they launched it, and it flew up a couple of kilometres and it came down and landed exactly on its landing spot. Present at the launch was the chief technical officer of Alibaba, which is like Amazon in China. So I think that’s clear where the money was coming from. The team was young. You know, these young men are following a vision and they’re clearly quite skillful and they’ve got some money behind them.

James Kynge
The creation of a private Chinese space industry mirrors a revolution in the US space sector in recent years.

[Audio clip of a rocket launch countdown]
Five, four, three, two, one . . . 

James Kynge
Elon Musk’s SpaceX is the dominant player in a commercial market that has seen astronauts ferried to the International Space Station on private spacecraft. SpaceX has billions of dollars worth of contracts with Nasa, including one to eventually fly astronauts back to the moon.

Robert Zubrin
Commercial space adventures are certainly going to be a big part of the future. I mean, look, what Musk has done is extraordinary for a well-led entrepreneurial team to do things that was previously thought that only the governments of major powers could do. That’s why there are five companies from China trying to copy him. And that’s probably why the Chinese government, once they see which one of these is the best, will give it adequate support to make sure that it goes all the way because they know they need one.

[Audio clip]
My first sunrise from the Soyuz, is a moment I will never forget. You couldn’t wipe a smile off of my face.

James Kynge
There’s a psychological phenomenon that astronauts often report. It’s called the overview effect.

[Audio clip]
It’s just almost overwhelming when you first see it.

James Kynge
Where astronauts see the Earth from space as a whole, hanging in the void, and gain a profound understanding of humanity that transcends the concept of national borders. But that doesn’t take into account the hard realities of global geopolitics between two rival superpowers. For the US at least, it’s the fear that any Chinese advancements in technology, whether in space or here on Earth, all translate into greater Chinese military power. The FT’s Demetri Sevastopulo says this anxiety derives from something called civil military fusion.

Demetri Sevastopulo
In China the civil military fusion programme basically means that any company can be forced to provide technology it’s developed or acquired to the People’s Liberation Army, the Chinese military. There’s lots of areas where technology that has civilian or commercial uses can be applied in the military domain as well. And so the American government is increasingly concerned about this. And you know, we’ve been interviewing intelligence officials who have said that they are going out to American companies and warning them that even if you’re doing deals or transactions or sharing technology, what appear to be just regular private sector companies in China? The truth is that those companies may have a connection with the Chinese military. Or if not, the Chinese government could force them to have a connection with the Chinese military at any particular point in time. So I think that’s, that is creating an awful lot of concern in Washington and frankly is propelling the argument that some are making, which is that you have to have a real decoupling.

James Kynge
Do you feel that that argument will win the day in the US? That the decouplers is when it comes to this type of sensitive technology will prevail?

Demetri Sevastopulo
The difficulty is that China is making so much progress in many areas that it’s possible that in five or 10 years time, it will be irrelevant because China will be, you know, on a par with the US with a lot of technologies. In some cases, a little bit behind. And in other cases, like hypersonics, they’ll be ahead.

James Kynge
So are you saying that the US decouplers are actually too late that the China horse has bolted?

Demetri Sevastopulo
Oh, I think the China horse bolted a long time ago. And you know, now what you’re seeing is that the China’s increasingly wielding its power to bend different countries to its will. So I think it is going to be a really big concern. But I do think that people who want to have huge decoupling, they are too late.

James Kynge
In the next episode of Tech Tonic: a mysterious death and the encroachment of Chinese surveillance technology into eastern Europe.

[Audio clip]
It is state of the art technology. It has the 30 times Zoom night vision. It can record audio so it can detect faces or objects.

James Kynge
We hear about the Belt and Road Initiative, China’s flagship programme to spread its influence and technology around the world

Audio clip
In the eyes of China, Serbia is European country. And when you are successful in a country like Serbia, that means that you’re successful in Europe.

James Kynge
You’ve been listening to Tech Tonic from the Financial Times. I’m James Kynge, the FT’s global China editor. Many thanks to Demetri Sevastopulo for speaking with me and for conducting the interview with congressman Mike Gallagher. Edwin Lane is our senior producer, Josh Gabert-Doyon is our producer and Manuela Saragosa is executive producer. Our sound engineer is Breen Turner with original scoring by Metaphor Music, and the FT’s head of audio is Cheryl Brumley. Watch out for the next episode in this series, out on April 25th. There’s lots more reporting on technology on the FT website. In the show notes. You can also find a link to get a special discounted FT subscription. And just one more thing before we go. If you’re tired of doom scrolling and searching through endless news feeds, the FT launched a new iPhone app to help you read less and understand more. It’s available now for iPhone users. Just search FT Edit in the App Store. We think it’s time well-read.

This transcript has been automatically generated. If by any chance there is an error please send the details for a correction to: typo@ft.com. We will do our best to make the amendment as soon as possible.

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