The recent announcement of the trilateral partnership ‘AUKUS’ and the first in-person Quadrilateral Security Dialogue leaders’ summit heralded a new phase in Australia’s response to an increasingly uncertain strategic environment. Although distinct in both scope and magnitude, the two groupings’ common undercurrent is the promise and risks of critical technologies. Specifically, these developments show how Australia can cooperate with trusted partners in high tech areas like quantum computing, artificial intelligence, and space to support economic prosperity and national security, including to offset risks associated with China’s technological rise.
A new era of techpolitik
The intersection of technology, geopolitics, and strategic policy is not a new issue nor of unique concern to Australia. Throughout history, states have preoccupied themselves with how the development and diffusion of technologies might create winners and losers and tip the global power balance in or against their favour. A prime example of this was US anxiety during the Cold War over a potential technological gap when the Soviets’ launched the Sputnik 1 satellite. This moment helped catalyse the US’ innovation ecosystem to compete with the Soviet Union for superior spaceflight capability.
Despite rhyming with history, the character and implications of technology competition today are qualitatively different. The US faces the prospect of a strategic competitor, China, becoming a peer technological power. China’s rise has in part been enabled by Sino-American science and technology collaboration and the openness of the liberal international order. The result is that China could play a bigger role in shaping the global institutions and norms of how technology is developed and used; be better placed to develop cutting-edge military capabilities; and Chinese tech companies may become more dominant in global technology markets, contributing to China’s economic strength. The accelerated digitisation of the global economy because of the COVID19 pandemic has only hastened China’s advances towards these ends.
As a US treaty ally, advanced economy, and importer of advanced technologies, Australia has a critical stake in how the US navigates the strategic and economic trade-offs of technology cooperation and competition with China. Long-term efforts to maintain its technological competitiveness may support the US to advance alliance interests in the Indo-Pacific from a continued position of relative strength and has payoffs for Australia’s capability edge. Australia also benefits from the US upholding technology markets that are competitive, diverse, and operate according to trade rules. But in particular areas, such as restrictions on research collaboration, US actions need to be carefully balanced so as not to inadvertently hamstring innovation and the open system it is seeking to protect, contrary to Australia’s interests.
Australia and tech leadership
Australia is not a bystander in how the US-China contest for technological leadership unfolds. Like many US allies and partners, Australia has agency, and its technology policy choices, industrial base, and the citizenry will shape its technology future. High tech powers such as Japan, South Korea, and Germany hold substantial market power and sway over the future directions of global technological developments. Yet still, the influential and constructive role Australia can also play should not be underestimated.
Australia is a ‘clever country’ with a history of producing pioneering scientific research and talented individuals with global impact. Australia has world-leading capabilities in specific areas, such as quantum computing, although there is an emerging risk that funding and support may not keep pace with the impending quantum revolution. Australia’s smarts also flow through to its technology sector and start-up scene, which continue to grow quickly. In recognition of this, industry leaders recently formalised their agenda to champion the creation, development, and adoption of technology across the economy. This complements government initiatives to grow the digital economy, build digital skills, and support commercialisation onshore.
Australia has also established itself as a policy thought leader for how to build national resilience and mitigate the risks of critical technologies being exploited by malicious actors. Australia was the first country to exclude high-risk vendors from its 5G telecommunications networks in response to security advice in 2018, with international partners seeking Australian technical expertise as they contemplated their approaches. This was followed by major policy initiatives to counter foreign interference in sensitive research, protect technology supply chains, reform foreign investment screening, uplift critical infrastructure security, and build cyber resilience.
While not without criticism from China, Australia’s policy approaches for the most part have enhanced its standing among international partners, including in fora like the UN and G7. Australia’s credibility stems from its active and forward-looking international technology agenda, reflected by the Cyber and Critical Technology International Engagement Strategy released in April. Through initiatives such as regional capacity building, technology standard-setting, and leadership in UN engagement, Australia has continued to leverage its partnerships and goodwill in global institutions to support the reliable, secure, and diverse supply of critical technologies, underpinned by liberal democratic values such as human rights and right to privacy.
Australia has now turned its mind to additional and long-term practical measures that will maintain its technological edge and that of its partners. The AUKUS partnership announced in September represents a potential step-change in security and defence cooperation between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the US. While commentary focused on Australia's acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines under the agreement, the bigger picture is the opportunities AUKUS creates for cooperation on cyber, artificial intelligence, quantum computing, and undersea capabilities. Moreover, technology has become a critical area of cooperation in groupings such as the Quad between Australia, the US, Japan, and India, with leaders announcing major initiatives in cyber, space, chip supply chains, and STEM talent development at the recent in-person leaders’ summit.
Although the contest for technological leadership is still unfolding, what is clear is that its trajectory is not tied to the actions of the US and China alone. Many countries, and companies, have the capacity to shape the future contours of technological power in the Indo-Pacific and reap the economic, military, and political dividends. Despite not being a regional high-tech power, Australia has shown that playing to one’s strengths, working collaboratively, and taking risks on new partnerships can not only get you a seat at the table, but enable you to help shape a technology agenda that supports a world its citizens want to live in — free, safe, and secure.