China catching EU on innovation, amid industrial espionage scandals
China is catching up fast with the EU in research and innovation, according to a study published by the European Commission ahead of a meeting of EU leaders on the same issue. But industrial spying scandals in France and the US have painted China's economic ambitions in a disturbing light.
The US and Japan are way ahead of Europe, while China and Brazil are catching up fast with the old continent in the number of patents issued, private and public expenditure dedicated to research and development, and academic research on cutting-edge technologies, the EU's latest "Innovation Union Scoreboard 2010" shows.
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Within the EU, Sweden is top, followed closely by Denmark, Finland and Germany. Latvia, Bulgaria, Lithuania and Romania are at the lower end.
"The scoreboard highlights the innovation emergency in Europe," EU commissioner for innovation, research and science, Maire Geoghegan-Quinn said. "If Europe stands still we will see the US disappear into the distance just as we feel emerging nations breathing down our necks."
A first meeting of EU leaders dedicated to innovation is to take place in Brussels on Friday (4 February), with the EU commission planning to put forward proposals to "radically" simplify community funding for R&D.
EU-wide recognition of patents – still a costly endeavour for European firms – is one of the bloc's biggest weaknesses, especially since China "continues rapidly to narrow its performance gap with the EU," the commission said in a statement.
Twelve member states, including France, Germany and the UK, have decided to go ahead with the so-called ehanced co-operation procedure to fast-track legislation on the single EU patent in the absence of an EU-27 agreement.
"Europe, where the modern scientific method was invented, is falling behind in both quality and quantity of ideas. On current trends, within a generation as little as 10 percent of the world's new 'ideas' may originate in Europe," said the Science/Business Innovation Board, a Brussels-based non-profit group.
China's dynamism in the research field has been tainted by a series of industrial espionage scandals in Europe and the United States, however.
In France, leaked intelligence reports accuse Beijing of using prostitutes, fake job offers and work experience students to gain industrial secrets from French companies. Quoted by Le Parisien, the classified documents refer to China as showing "curiosity" in all of the country's economic sectors. The leaked papers claim it is "as big a threat as America" in terms of industrial spying.
The allegations come weeks after three executives at car maker Renault were fired over releasing details of a proposed electric car to unnamed Chinese recipients. The trio denies the accusation.
On the other side of the Atlantic, a former engineer was last week sentenced to 32 years in prison for providing China with technical military data.
According to evidence presented during the trial, Noshir Gowadia got at least $110,000 from China after six trips to the country between 2003-2005 to assist with building a cruise missile system.
In a separate case, Glenn Shriver, a 29-year old has been sentenced to a four-year prison sentence in the US for trying to get a job with the CIA so that he could spy for China. Mr Shriver admitted he met Chinese officials about 20 times and received $70,000 to do the job.