20 Sep 2021
Australia well placed to turbocharge its strategic tech capability
By Fergus Hanson and Danielle Cave
Last week’s surprise AUKUS announcement by the United States, Britain and Australia has created a frenzy of focus on nuclear-powered submarines, but the bigger picture is getting lost in a sea of naval analysis.
The real potential of AUKUS lies in how the new grouping can be leveraged in the long term to help Australia deal with the profound technological disruption about to sweep the world.
Modern warfare and geopolitical competition will be marked, not just by military action and conventional deterrence, but by “hybrid threats” – cyber attacks and data theft, disinformation, foreign interference, economic coercion, attacks on critical infrastructure, supply chain disruption, among others.
Submarines alone will not counter these threats – nuclear-powered or not – and analysis that only focuses on Australia’s future fleet (or France’s furious reaction) is missing the bigger picture about what AUKUS could and should mean. The alliance has been set up as an information and technology sharing arrangement that will focus on critical technologies such as, for instance, artificial intelligence and quantum.
Key to this will be efforts to foster deeper integration of security and defence-related science, technology, industrial bases and supply chains. The leaders’ statement doubles down on the importance of the Indo-Pacific, a region where “hybrid threats” are becoming far more pervasive – in large part because of the Chinese state’s increasingly assertive and aggressive behaviour there.
Nuclear-powered submarines will give our navy a future edge over adversaries. But far beyond maritime military matters, AUKUS could give Australia a strategic and technological boost that could last decades.
Few have grasped the enormity of the disruption coming our way as more and more new technologies continue to be deployed across the world. While governments grapple with foreseeing the full impacts and setting policy direction, there is a growing realisation that emerging and critical technologies will be extraordinarily important for societies, economies and national security.
This is making the race to master them a geopolitical issue. And nowhere is this race more contested than in the Indo-Pacific, which incubates much of the world’s innovation and has become a hotbed of strategic technological competition.
Governments with foresight and capability are now making big and quick bets on future technologies – and new groupings or “minilaterals” (such as the Quad) are providing vital vehicles to do so. But just as AUKUS is not only about submarines, neither is massive technological change only about geopolitics and conflict.
At a national level, governments are struggling with how to relate to the commercial sector. Global debate is raging over who should make the rules when it comes to issues such as data protection, privacy and social media.
In China, the Communist Party is investing heavily in technologies it deems to be future-defining, from e-commerce to military applications. Simultaneously, the party is also reining in its tech giants for flying too close to the sun, at great cost to the economy and investor confidence. In the United States, there is ongoing talk about the need to break up its Big Tech conglomerates in an effort to reduce market domination.
As if these challenges were not complicated enough, the pandemic and the use of economic coercion have illustrated how vulnerable states are to global supply chain disruption, reigniting efforts to build up sovereign capability and form new coalitions with like-minded partners. Then there’s climate change, which threatens us all.
It’s in the world’s collective interest to come together on solutions, which will include collaborating on technologies that could hold the key to our collective survival. Today, the threats and opportunities posed by technologies are global in nature. And yet, there is no multilateral forum where governments, business and civil society can come together to deal with these disruptive challenges.
Right now, there are three big problems that must be addressed to ensure the stable development of advanced technologies. First, there is a large lag between the deployment of new technologies and regulation. Second, there is a delay between states’ use of new technologies and society’s consideration of the ethical questions raised by their use. Third, a tense relationship between governments and technology companies is playing out around the world. This negative dynamic is hindering progress and genuine co-operation.
Left unaddressed, these problems will mean we are unlikely to develop the breakthrough technologies of the future, or see them rolled out in a way that supports ongoing international stability. Developments such as AUKUS are important as they will help coalesce focus on the technologies themselves, while also encouraging greater technology collaboration. What is also needed is a better and more global approach to managing the next wave of highly disruptive technologies. And Australia needs to ensure that, particularly in the Indo-Pacific, we are working hard to lead the way.