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Computing set to bolster China’s industrial prowess

China, having successfully developed the world’s fastest supercomputer, now poses a more serious threat than ever to the United States militarily, and to Japan commercially.

China’s Tianhe-1A computer has been recognized as having greater computing capabilities than any other supercomputer in existence, anywhere, although Chinese superiority in this area might be short-lived because both the U.S. and Japan are likely to come up with next-generation supercomputers that surpass the Chinese model within the next year or two.

For example, Riken, Japan’s state-backed large natural sciences research institute, is now working on a next-generation supercomputer named “Kei,” which may outperform the Tianhe-1A by far. But the significant fact remains that China has now become one of the top global competitors in supercomputer development.

Any country with an ambition of becoming a major military power must have advanced supercomputers. They are indispensable for such technologies as intercepting intercontinental ballistic missiles and cruise missiles, or destroying missiles with laser beams fired from satellites orbiting Earth.

Supercomputers are also used for tracking down enemy aircraft and ships and for monitoring cell-phone and e-mail communications worldwide.

It is no exaggeration to say that the U.S. has so far been able to maintain its military superiority because of the supercomputers it possesses, as they are the must for developing aircraft, missiles and satellites.

Washington now faces a new and serious challenge from Beijing, which, because of its advancement in supercomputer technology, is trying to catch up with the U.S. in such diversified military fields as missiles, military satellites and nuclear-powered submarines and aircraft carriers.

If China succeeds in increasing the computing speed of its supercomputers, they would be instrumental in greatly elevating the capabilities of its naval vessels — such as the Lanzhou-class destroyers. Although they are called Chinese AEGIS ships, at present they cannot cope with simultaneous multiple targets — such as aircraft, missiles and submarines — because their computers are not advanced enough. High-speed supercomputers will also be useful in the operation of the aircraft carrier under construction.

The U.S. fears that its dominant position in the western Pacific and East China Sea might be threatened with the advancement of China’s supercomputer technologies.

Japan is not immune from the new challenge from China, especially in commercial fields. One such challenge may come in the form of stiffening competition in the development, manufacture and sale of mainframe computers.

As China’s banking and other industries become modernized and face the growing challenges of information processing, Japanese computer manufacturers have pinned their hopes on that big potential market. With the advancement of its supercomputer technologies, however, China is likely to meet such needs with computers of its own making. Moreover, low-cost computers made in China could very well penetrate deep into markets outside China that have so far been dominated by American, European and Japanese computer makers.

The automobile industry is a good example of how supercomputers can contribute to elevating technological standards. The conventional way of designing a new car model is to build a “mockup” to test drag coefficients and other performance characteristics. The use of computer simulation makes it easy to alter the design and determine the characteristics including air resistance.

Should Chinese automakers become capable of fully utilizing domestically produced low-cost supercomputers, their design skills would improve dramatically, narrowing the gap with their traditional competitors. Such computers can also be useful in designing high-speed trains, the basic technologies for which have been introduced from Japan and Germany.

China’s domestically developed and manufactured supercomputers will undoubtedly play major roles in designing reactors for more than 100 nuclear power stations that China reportedly plans to construct over the next two decades; developing new pharmaceuticals through biotechnology; and improving agricultural products through gene modifications — to name just a few.

So far China has been unable to come up with a significant number of unique and high value-added products of its own because its industries have been heavily reliant on copying and refining American, European and Japanese technologies. That has led China to sell inexpensive goods in huge quantities throughout the world.

However, the more common use of supercomputers in various industrial segments in China could bring about a significant change in competition between Chinese manufacturers and their opposite numbers in the U.S., Europe and Japan.

There is one other factor that must not be overlooked in studying the development of supercomputers in China: Beijing is encouraging competition between two principal research teams — one located in the northern part of the country and the other in the south.

The Tianhe-1A supercomputer, which was recognized as the world’s fastest supercomputer, is a product of the team in Tianjin (Tientsin), with the National University of Defense Technology serving as its core.

Meanwhile, the team in the south of the National Supercomputer Center in Shenzhen, has come up with the third-fastest supercomputer in the world known as Shuguang (Dawning).

This shows how serious the Chinese government is in developing supercomputers of its own, because making two teams compete against each other was the policy Beijing has pursued when it sought to strengthen such industrial segments as oil refining, shipbuilding and aircraft manufacturing.

Unless Japan takes the new challenge from China in the supercomputer field seriously and puts up a good fight, it may lose its dominant position in other industrial fields.

This is an abridged translation of an article from the December issue of Sentaku, a monthly magazine covering Japanese political, economic and social issues.