Liu Ruopeng arrived at Duke University in the early 2000s to begin doctoral studies under Professor David Smith. In 2010, Dr. Ruopeng cofounded Kuang-Chi Institute of Advanced Technology in Shenzhen, often called “China’s Silicon Valley.” In 2012, Xi Jinping visited Kuang-Chi on his first state industrial visit as president and received a personal briefing by Ruopeng on the current and potential applications of metamaterials.1 In 2018, when trade relations deteriorated between the United States and China, NBC highlighted the controversial and unauthorized transfer of Duke University’s metamaterial research by Ruopeng to China. He claimed that he transferred only basic research; Professor Smith disagrees, pointing to an exact replica of Duke’s microwave cloaking model built at Zhejiang University.2 In the end, China made boundless advances in the field of metamaterials without consequence.
Independent of industrial espionage, China has several significant advantages with respect to the development and fielding of meta-material-based technologies. It owns half the global market share of printed circuit boards, crucial components in not only legacy electronics but also the construction of highly customized, metamaterial lattices.3 In comparison, the United States retains only a 5 percent market share, thanks to a 70 percent decline in production since 2000.4 Further, China’s research and development, design, and production are highly concentrated and coordinated, leveraging public-private ventures between business and state-owned enterprises. Shenzhen houses a technological ecosystem ripe for collaboration and technological convergence in a single geographic location—20 percent of all Chinese citizens with Ph.D.s live there. Shenzhen is no longer merely in the business of “shanzhai”—copying and counterfeiting foreign technology. It is innovating at scale.5
China recently announced it would begin testing and applying new metasurface coatings to its legacy fighters to decrease their radar cross-section.6 While such application will not overcome the limits of legacy structural design and composition, it will nonetheless increase the efficacy and lethality of its force. And the country is racing ahead with the use of metasurfaces in its fifth-generation J-20 fighter. The follow-on J-31 fighter doubtless will include more metamaterial-based components.7 China most assuredly recognizes cross-application of metamaterial technology for satellites, advanced hypersonic anti-ship cruise missiles, antiship ballistic missiles, and air-to-air missiles.
The United States must do more not only in research and development, but also in protection of that research from espionage if it wants to build and maintain an advantage in the field.
1. Yang Ruru, “Xi Jinping visited Shenzhen Kuang-Chi Research Institute,” China News, 14 December 2012.
2. Cynthia McFadden, Aliza Nadi, and Courtney McGee, “Education or Espionage? A Chinese Student Takes His Homework Home to China,” NBC News, 24 July 2018.
3. Paradoxically, metamaterial development could actually threaten China’s preeminence and negate this advantage, as metamaterial circuit boards might revitalize competition. See Mark Piesing, “A Metamaterial Which Could Stop Electronics from Eating the Planet,” The Guardian, 19 October 2012.
4. Interagency Task Force in Fulfillment of Executive Order 13806, Assessing and Strengthening the Manufacturing and Defense Industrial Base and Supply Chain Resiliency of the United States, September 2018.
5. Wade Shephard, “A Look Inside Shenzhen’s High-Tech Empire,” Forbes, 14 July 2016.
6. Zachary Keck, “Forget China’s J-20 or J-31 Stealth Fighters: What If Beijing Could Make Older Fighters Stealth,” The National Interest, 23 January 2019.
7. Jeffrey Lin and P. W. Singer, “China’s New Stealth Fighter Uses Powerful Materials with Geometry Not Found in Nature,” Popular Science, 22 March 2018.