Last week, US President Joe Biden signed the CHIPS and Science Act which is intended to strengthen American technological competitiveness.
Included in the bill are provisions to bolster domestic semiconductor manufacturing through more than $US52 billion ($75 billion) in investments and increase funding for the National Science Foundation to $US280 billion to support research and development.
Revitalising the US research and industrial base remains critical to American economic and national security. This is especially true amid sharpening geopolitical tensions between Washington and Beijing.
But as significant as these investments into the US economy are, enhancing any one country’s industrial base is only a partial solution to the challenge of maintaining a leading edge in designing, developing and using cutting-edge technologies.
US actions alone will be insufficient to protect and sustain its technological prowess. If investments into domestic industries are the first step, international cooperation between like-minded countries is the necessary next one.
US allies are force multipliers for US technology strategy and broader strategic competition with China.
Pivotal role of allies
The US relies on the international scientific community for access to talent. Technology supply chains are global and complicated, with many countries playing a role, such that US self-reliance in areas such as semiconductors is an unrealistic, and costly, proposition.
US efforts to guard against technology leakage to China will be futile if like-minded partners do not adopt similar approaches. Shaping global governance of technology, including standard setting, in line with democratic values depends upon the actions of partner nations and their firms. The security of key technologies, such as 5G telecommunications networks, is affected by the regulatory approaches of third countries.
The US has already recognised the pivotal role of allies in advancing a collective technological edge. Technology cooperation is at the heart of major US foreign policy initiatives such as the US-Australia-UK (AUKUS) partnership, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue between Australia, India, Japan and the United States, and the European Union-US Trade and Technology Council. These are not about constraining China, but rather enhancing allied cohesion and innovation in the technological sphere.
With the CHIPS and Science Act now signed into law, US attention should turn to building on existing initiatives to formalise an even more comprehensive and inclusive technology partnership across the Indo-Pacific.
Our research published by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies surveys critical technology policy developments by like-minded nations and identifies the need for a regional technology agenda. The results are illuminating.
Nations across the Indo-Pacific have all taken steps to shore up their technological future. This includes investing in critical technology development, building skilled workforces, tightening foreign investment screening and export controls, and seeking to shape technology standards. These actions reflect a shared recognition of the importance of technology for economic prosperity, national security and for the values that shape global norms.
While such existing efforts are critical, they are not as coordinated or deep as they could be. The creation of a new layer of architecture, an Indo-Pacific Technology Partnership, would help address this.
Such a partnership would not seek to displace existing groups or the range of existing techno-diplomacy underway. Instead, it would serve as an annual ministerial and bureaucratic touch point on how to manage sensitive technology cooperation with a potential adversary and support practical cooperation by like-minded states.
Members should include major technology powerhouses such as South Korea, South-East Asian partners and smaller players such as New Zealand, as well as those outsides of the immediate region like the United Kingdom.
The partnership should initially focus on three areas where like-minded countries can together have the greatest impact based on current gaps, areas of complementarity and overlaps. These areas are regulatory harmonisation to counter unwanted knowledge transfer that jeopardises the security of critical technology, strengthening the security and diversity of 5G telecommunications networks and coordinating regional digital infrastructure investment.
While there are many common geostrategic interests between countries of the Indo-Pacific, such a partnership would not be without challenges.
Countries involved would have to navigate varying industrial policies, competing private sector equities and different bilateral relationships with China. It would be important that the partnership maintain a positive agenda focused on advancing technological development and the provision of helpful public goods to the region, as much as mitigating risks from potential adversaries.
Ultimately, partnering internationally is a key source of strength for US technological advancement. US leadership of a more ambitious and better synched regional effort is one further step that could accelerate its progress in both protecting and advancing its technological edge.