Most experts don’t expect the quantum computing to be ready for prime time for 10 years or more. But that’s just a guess. True quantum supremacy would render the most common form of encryption obsolete. Nobody really knows when the moment of reckoning will come when quantum computers will be capable of cracking any code to reveal the secrets of nations, or who will accomplish it first. The implications are fueling a race of sorts, as nations vie for a quantum edge.

The nightmare scenario, from the standpoint of U.S. national security, is that China develops a working quantum computer without tipping its hand. That would leave China free to decrypt secure communications and gain access to reams of U.S. intelligence data. “China could develop quantum computing in secret, earlier than anticipated, and employ it against sensitive communications to out maneuver or strategically outflank the U.S.,” wrote Elsa Kania and John Costello in a report for the Center for a New American Security. “The arrival of such a quantum surprise would be difficult to assess and judge, and could confound U.S. intelligence assessments.”