China's advanced J-20 stealth fighter was unveiled during an air show in November. Despite a smaller increase in defence spending in 2016 and this year, China has not abandoned its long-term plans to modernize its military. Photo: Reuters
China's J-20 stealth fighter. The US and have been in a race to take stealth technology to new heights. Photo: Reuters

Quantum invisibility. When someone hears this term, they instantly think of science fiction. But we are living in an era where yesterday’s science fiction is quickly becoming science fact.

Quantum invisibility is derived from an exotic metal known as a “metamaterial.” And whichever country (or company) can develop this technology first will have immense strategic advantages over the rest of the world’s countries. 

According to Britannica, metamaterial is an “artificially structured material that exhibits extraordinary electromagnetic properties not available or not easily obtainable in nature.” 

Currently, the United States and China are racing each other for dominance in the vital metamaterial market. Even though the US has invested in this technology longer than China, the Chinese are applying it in the real world. 

In fact, there is ample evidence to suggest that China may have leapfrogged the Americans, thanks to a combination of sly industrial espionage and copious investments in state-funded research and development of the technology.

As the next decade of the turbulent 21st century unfolds, these futuristic-sounding technologies are at the heart of the ongoing, often deadly, shadowy technology war raging across the world between the United States and China. Whichever side wins this tech race wins the future.

Into this unfolding saga enters the Chinese entrepreneur Ruopeng Liu. 

A man dubbed “China’s Elon Musk,” Liu is one example of China’s rapaciousness when it comes to developing its supremacy over the Americans in the creation of metamaterials. 

Ruopeng Liu has a net worth of US$1.3 billion. He earned a PhD from Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, in 2009. While there, he actively courted Duke’s pre-eminent metamaterials scientist, David Smith.

Through his work with Smith, Liu gained unprecedented access to Smith’s cutting-edge research in metamaterials – specifically, Smith’s purported “invisibility cloak,” which the Duke University scientist was developing in conjunction with the US Department of Defense. 

The Pentagon was interested in Smith’s “invisibility cloak” because the metamaterial in question is invisible to microwave signals. If the US military could create aircraft and other vehicles from Smith’s technology, it would help to keep the Americans ahead of their rivals in stealth technology. The Defense Department had spent millions of dollars helping Smith in his “basic research on optical and electromagnetic material design.” 

Upon the successful completion of his PhD in 2007, Liu giddily returned to China and founded a company KuangChi Science Ltd, which has been valued at a whopping $6 billion, with an optical and electromagnetic material design identical to the one that the Pentagon was funding for David Smith of Duke University. 

Liu’s project has garnered so much interest from the Chinese government and military that one of Xi Jinping’s first stops after becoming China’s president in 2012 was to Liu’s lab in Shenzhen, where the “invisibility cloak” was being developed.

Liu denies any wrongdoing. Neither US intelligence nor David Smith believes him. Interestingly, Liu’s alma mater, Duke University, has not considered revoking the PhD he earned, despite the accusations against him. 

The question must be asked: If a leading researcher at Duke, David Smith, and the Department of Defense as well as America’s counterintelligence apparatus are accusing Liu Ruopeng of industrial espionage, at the very least one would think Duke would launch an internal investigation of its former PhD student. 

Interestingly, Duke University is one of America’s countless higher educational institutes that has accepted money from Chinese entities, and it even partners with a university in Shanghai (Duke Kunshan University).

With all these connections between Duke and China, perhaps the administration simply does not want to rock the boat over Ruopeng Liu’s purported theft of intellectual property – especially if he’d be willing to donate to his alma mater at some point.

After all, there is ample evidence suggesting that Ruopeng Liu was, in fact, acting as a covert agent for the Chinese government.

For example, an e-mail exchange between Liu and a friend surfaced after Liu had returned to China from Duke University. In that e-mail, Liu confessed to his friend that he had been sent to Duke by the Chinese government for ulterior motives related to technology theft, specifically to obtain David Smith’s research on the “invisibility cloak” because of its obvious military implications.

In 2011, the State Key Laboratory of Metamaterial Electromagnetic Modulation Technology at the Guangqi Advanced Institute of Technology in Guangdong province was mass-producing the metamaterials related to the “invisibility cloak” for use in China’s fifth-generation warplane program. Established in 2011, the lab reportedly has an annual production of capacity of more than 10,000 square meters of metamaterial plates. 

Since 2018, China has been experimenting with using metamaterials on its existing fleet of warplanes. As always, the Americans were ahead of the Chinese in thinking about this new, exotic technology. The Chinese stole the idea and then figured out useful applications for the new technology before the Yanks could – and acted boldly to ensure that China, not the US, got the all-important first-mover advantage. 

As the 2020s unravel, a period dubbed a “decade of concern” by many experts, America’s dominance in science and technology – indeed, as a world power – is increasingly in question. The case of the stolen “invisibility cloak” is just another example of how unprepared the Americans are for this new era of great-power competition. 

Brandon J Weichert

Brandon J Weichert is the author of Winning Space: How America Remains a Superpower. He is a geopolitical analyst who manages The Weichert Report: World News Done Right. His work appears regularly in The Washington Times and Real Clear Politics. Weichert is a former US congressional staffer who holds an MA in statecraft and national security affairs from the Institute of World Politics in Washington, DC, and is an associate member of New College, Oxford University.