China surpasses South Korea in tech and science gains, Seoul says as ‘unacceptable and upsetting’ loss to rival spurs introspection

In the ramped-up realm of science and technology, market competition between global manufacturing powers China and South Korea appears to have intensified in recent years.

China’s advancements in 136 key technologies outpaced those of South Korea for the first time in 2022, according to a recent report by the latter’s Ministry of Science and ICT (information and communication technology).

Seoul’s ranking set the scientific and technological development level of the United States in 2022 as the baseline. The related development level of the European Union stood at 94.7 per cent, ranking second globally. It was followed by Japan at 86.4 per cent, China at 86.2 per cent, and South Korea at 81.5 per cent, the ministry said last week.

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Its last such evaluation was for 2020, when Korea was at 80.1 per cent and narrowly eked out China at 80 per cent.

The rankings are evaluated every two years by reviewing academic papers and patents in 11 areas, including construction and transport, space, aviation and oceanic, national defence, mechanical manufacturing, resources, ICT and software.

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The new findings estimate that, in 2022, China was three years behind the US in terms of technological prowess while South Korea was 3.2 years behind. Both had been about 3.3 years behind the US in 2020.

Even though its gaps with Japan and Europe are wider, the Korean media’s focus on China shows that the country is anxious about being surpassed by China, said Zhang Huizhi, a professor of northeast Asian studies at Jilin University.

“South Korea has taken for granted that the US, EU and Japan have long been more developed than it, thus it doesn’t matter if it can’t catch up,” Zhang said. “But it is unacceptable and upsetting that it was surpassed by China, over whom it once held a science and technology advantage.”

Therefore, South Korea is hyping up its plan to impose a technological blockade on China, prevent technological exchanges and the leakage of cutting-edge technology to China, she added.

It means that Korea and China ... will engage in a fierce battle for market share
Park Ki-soon, Sungkyunkwan University

Park Ki-soon, who specialises in the Chinese economy as a professor at the Sungkyunkwan University Graduate School of China, called China’s relatively rapid progress in key technologies a “somewhat expected result”, given that China has been moving away from “imitation” and is now focusing its efforts on technological innovations.

South Korea saw a trade deficit of US$18 billion with China in 2023 – its first such deficit since their establishment of diplomatic relations in 1992, according to the South Korean Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy.

It sold US$124.8 billion worth of goods to China last year, down by 20 per cent from 2022, while imports from the world’s second-largest economy fell by 8 per cent to US$142.8 billion.

Park pointed out that this was largely due to the diminishing competitive edge of South Korean products due to China’s technological developments.

“Korea’s trade deficit with China will become entrenched,” Park said. “And more broadly, it means that Korea and China, global manufacturing powers, will engage in a fierce battle for market share in the global market.”

China has been ramping up investment and efforts in areas such as artificial intelligence and semiconductors to rival the US. This involves building infrastructure, establishing development plans, and cultivating and recruiting talent.

However, China’s national spending on research and development accounted for 2.64 per cent of China’s gross domestic product last year, far behind the levels seen in the US and South Korea.

Beijing is leading the development of key technologies by linking government research institutes, academia, large corporations, small and medium-sized enterprises, and even defence-related organisations, and has enormous human resources, Park explained.

“Although there may be economic inefficiencies due to the failure of some projects in the process, it appears to be achieving tremendous results in terms of achieving technological tasks,” Park said.

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Park added that China’s technological superiority is expected to be a “huge burden” on South Korea, and that there needs to be a more clear direction in which Seoul should move with a future-oriented and macroscopic perspective on national science and technology development.

“In particular, the government’s role is said to be significant in the field of basic technology ... Specifically, it is very important to steadily expand the ratio of R&D to GDP and to use R&D funds efficiently in terms of improving efficiency compared to expenditures,” Park said.

Kim Dae-jong, a business professor at Sejong University in Seoul, said South Korea is far behind China in areas such as aerospace, where “China has so far invested intensive funds and manpower with the goal of advancing science”.

However, Kim noted that “Korea is at the top in secondary batteries and semiconductors” and could retain its competitive advantage if it focuses its funds and manpower on “areas where it can beat China”.

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