ANZUS at 70: Technological cooperation—a critical alliance pillar

Something significant sits behind the vital Australia–US military and political alliance: technological cooperation. It gives both a practical and strategic edge to the bilateral relationship. Technology cooperation is a key pillar in the interoperability between our military forces, it enabled our cooperation to put men on the Moon and is driving renewed determination to go beyond the Moon to Mars, and it fuels successful collaborations among our universities in sectors from medical science to quantum technologies.

Looking back, technological cooperation must be recognised for the critical role it’s played in bringing Australia and the US together and achieving shared objectives. But now it’s time to look forward: the imperative to work even more closely, as trusted friends and allies, is only growing in magnitude and urgency. Technology itself has now become far more than an enabler of our daily lives. It’s a source of global power, geopolitical influence and control, and strategic and economic competition. And nowhere is that more apparent than in the Indo-Pacific region.

The quest by some actors—states and companies—for monopolies over technologies that are potential game-changers in daily life, and in conflict, has morphed from competition into geostrategic rivalry. The democratisation of technology was, for a period, largely celebrated as a global good—it put into the hands of individuals, groups and nation-states alike an ability to connect, communicate, integrate and innovate. Yet highly destabilising efforts by malicious state and non-state actors to control, manipulate and abuse a suite of capabilities that many in the world rely upon present a new and dangerous challenge. Open, free and independent societies—as well as the fragile system of rules and norms governing the appropriate use and application of critical technologies—are increasingly under threat.

Australia and the US are natural political, security and diplomatic partners in the important technological cooperation work ahead. Along with other democracies and like-minded partners—especially in the Indo-Pacific region, which incubates much of the world’s technological innovation and has become a hotbed of strategic technological competition—Australia and the US must focus their efforts on ensuring that the development and application of critical technologies reflect the principles and values that support the interests of free, open and independent societies. This must be more than just slogans about a ‘free and open’ internet. It means doubling down on the work underway to strengthen rules and norms in the technology and information sphere, and to ensure that international institutions are appropriately equipped to uphold them.

Strategic partnerships and alliances, such as the one between Australia and the US, are multidimensional and comprehensive. There’s enormous potential for critical technology policy to play a more central role in strategic partnerships, and in particular the Australia–US alliance. That potential—which would benefit from greater strategic intent—spans diplomacy and foreign policy, military, commercial and trade opportunities.

In 2020, Australia expanded the remit of the country’s inaugural Ambassador for Cyber Affairs (established in 2017) to include ‘critical technology’, reflecting the growing importance of technology in geopolitics. This diplomatic work must also extend to the protections of human rights, particularly as, for example, surveillance technologies become increasingly ubiquitous and can so easily be manipulated and deployed for nefarious purposes.

Diplomatically, there’s enormous potential for the Australia–US alliance to leverage and capitalise on the positive momentum of the Quad (the US, Australia, India and Japan). The Quad’s newly announced ‘critical and emerging technology group’ provides an obvious vehicle for both countries to build up and invest in. Also important are related initiatives such as Australia’s new technology-focused Sydney Dialogue initiative, hosted by ASPI, which aims to fill an important gap by bringing together the world’s top political and technology leaders to work towards common understandings of technological challenges and policy responses.

Militarily, the cooperation between Australia and the US that began under the US Department of Defense’s Third Offset Strategy should be reignited. The strategy was never solely about new technologies. It was about leveraging the US’s competitive advantages in its commercial and industrial innovation, and its ability to bring that innovation (often technological and often developed in partnership with others) to the war fighter. Most importantly, the collaborative framework provided by the strategy had at its heart working with allies and partners to reimagine operational concepts and constructs in order to strengthen conventional deterrence; in other words, to prevent conflict. Nothing is as urgent or as important as that work is today.

Initiatives aligned with the Third Offset Strategy, such as the Strategic Capabilities Office and the Defence Innovation Unit, have a role to play in bringing our nations’ capabilities together across the government – private sector divide. Technological innovation in both nations has ‘largely shifted from government labs to the private sector; and … the US needs to find an affordable way to maintain deterrence and stability.’ Another initiative that should be considered by the Australian government is building an Australian version of the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Such an investment wouldn’t just be an investment in Australia’s shallow R&D base, but would also help to build government, business and university links in strategic technology fields important to the Australian defence community and to the Australia–US alliance more broadly. Recent developments related to the Defence Science and Technology Group are an important step in moving towards that goal and better aligning science and technology work with Defence’s strategic priorities.

Arms control regimes created many decades ago remain vitally important, but they need updating. They were designed to keep critical and sensitive technologies out of the hands of malign actors and limit the proliferation of technologies of concern. But elements of those regimes now actively constrain cooperation between allies such as Australia and the US in vital areas in which commercial and industrial gains are simply outpacing the governance systems designed to control them.

Economically and commercially, Australia and the US are well positioned to move forward in a post-Covid world with renewed commitment to technology as an explicit basis for cooperation. Commercially, space, defence and critical technology industry cooperation is a clear geostrategic imperative for our two countries. Entrenched barriers to enhanced technological cooperation are difficult to reform quickly, but vital, operationally relevant collaboration could be boosted in the immediate term by work to agree on specific areas and processes for exemptions to facilitate Australian and US partnership on shared strategic problems.

Australia is a highly agile and capable technological partner to the US, and affordable deterrence and strategic stability should be core drivers of our combined technological and industrial efforts into the future. Creating the space for significantly enhanced trade and investment between Australia and the US in space, defence and other crucial technology sectors, such as in quantum computing, critical minerals and biotechnology, is entirely consistent with the important but often underappreciated role the US plays as Australia’s largest direct investor. It makes more sense than ever to ensure that this can continue in industries and technologies that are central to our common national security and that contribute to the broader security, stability and prosperity of the Indo-Pacific region.

Finally, Australia and the US should recommit, through practical initiatives, to Australia’s 2017 inclusion in the US National Technology and Industrial Base and ensure that our cooperation is optimised for the world in which we find ourselves. Such initiatives include successfully negotiating a technical safeguards agreement to enable strong US commercial and government investment in an Australian sovereign space launch capability. The decision to negotiate such an agreement, announced by Australian ministers on 1 July 2021, spotlights Australia’s competitive advantages precisely when governments and multinationals are looking for stable and trusted markets, exactly like Australia, that have proven they can protect sensitive technologies.

This post is an excerpt from ANZUS at 70: the past, present and future of the alliance, published by ASPI with support from the American Chamber of Commerce in Australia and edited by Patrick Walters.