High time for Australia and India to step up their tech diplomacy

Last month, UN member states elected American candidate Doreen Bogdan-Martin as the next secretary-general of the International Telecommunications Union in a fiercely contested diplomatic battle against a Russian candidate (and former executive of Chinese technology giant Huawei).

Divided along geopolitical fault lines, the election received an unusual amount of attention because of its significance in potentially determining the future of internet-based communications and the values that underpin them. Away from the media glare, ITU member states also passed their first resolution directly addressing artificial intelligence, tasking the organisation to ‘foster information-sharing and build understanding about the challenges and opportunities of deploying AI technologies in support of telecommunications and ICTs [information and communication technologies]’.

Emerging technologies such as AI now take geopolitical centre stage, and therefore the global tug of war over their development, use and deployment is playing out at standard-setting organisations.

A good example is China’s push for dominance to influence standards in 5G technology. After failing to meaningfully influence the setting of standards for 3G and 4G, the Chinese government commenced a national and diplomatic effort, in partnership with Huawei, to export its 5G standards. This effort included making a domestic push to formulate technical proposals, filling in key leadership positions in international bodies and participating in a variety of standard-setting initiatives across the globe.

Standards are blueprints or protocols with requirements that ‘standardise’ products, ensuring that they are interoperable, safe and sustainable. For example, USBs and WiFi are technologies that can be used globally because they’re built on technical standards. Standards are developed domestically—by a body such as the Bureau of Indian Standards or Standards Australia—and negotiated internationally at global standards-development organisations such as the ITU and the International Organization for Standardization.

While international standards don’t tend to be binding, they have great coercive power. Not adhering to recognised standards means that products may not reach foreign markets because they’re not compatible with consumer requirements or can’t claim to meet health, safety or data-protection regulations.

The ability to shape global standards is of immense geopolitical and economic value to states and companies. Harmonisation of internationally recognised standards serves as the bedrock for global trade and commerce. States that can export their domestic technological standards internationally are giving their companies a massive competitive advantage. Also, companies draw huge revenues from holding patents to technologies that are essential for complying with a certain standard and licensing them to other players that want to enter the market.

It’s no surprise that Chinese companies now lead the way on 5G—Huawei owns more 5G patents and more 5G contracts than any other company, despite restrictions placed on it by the United States, Australia and other countries.

Now is the time for states in the Indo-Pacific to revamp their approach to engaging in standards-development initiatives. Given the value of being able to shape global technical standards and their reflection of normative principles, it’s imperative that Indo-Pacific partners such as India and Australia are strongly positioned to promote a democratic, inclusive and transparent environment for setting technical standards, and ensure adequate representation of the broader Indo-Pacific community.

This is why ASPI and India’s Centre for Internet & Society have partnered to produce a ‘techdiplomacy guide’ on negotiating technical standards in AI—a crucial but general-purpose technology that will affect all aspects of work, industry and warfare.

States have contemplated the regulation of AI but are unlikely to be able to keep pace with the rapidly evolving technology. Nonetheless, the European Commission has drafted a legal framework on AI to address various levels of risk. At the same time, global tech companies have announced self-declared initiatives focused on principles for ‘ethical AI’, but they tend to be too broad and can serve as avenues for tech companies to skirt legal restraints.

Technical standards offer a middle ground where diverse stakeholders can collaborate to devise uniform requirements in AI development, and follow a rigorous process of exchange, debate and negotiation on the basis of consensus. Standard-setting in AI is an emerging field that has had limited scholarly engagement from a strategic and diplomatic perspective.

China is a notable exception. Several groups and companies, including Huawei and Cloud Walk, contributed to China’s 2018 AI standardisation white paper, which was further revised and updated in 2021. The white paper maps the work of standard-setting organisations in the field of AI and outlines a number of recommendations on how Chinese actors can influence these organisations to boost their industrial competitiveness and promote ‘Chinese wisdom’. While there are cursory references to the role of standards in furthering ethics and privacy, the document doesn’t outline how China will look to promote these values in standard-setting.

Yet, these are the values that are at stake. An excessive focus on security, accuracy or quality of AI may legitimise applications that are fundamentally at odds with human rights, the protection of privacy and freedom of speech. China’s efforts at shaping standards for facial recognition technology at the ITU have been criticised for moving beyond mere technical specifications into the domain of policy recommendations, despite there being a lack of representation of experts on human rights, consumer protection and data protection at the ITU.

For the project, titled ‘Strengthening Indo-Pacific techdiplomacy in critical technologies’, ASPI and CIS will unpack the various processes for international standard-setting in AI and identify the main stakeholders driving these initiatives along with who would bear the responsibility for ensuring that AI technology standards are developed responsibly, bearing in mind the key strategic priorities of stakeholders in the Indo-Pacific. We will also explore requirements for diverse representation—in expertise, gender and nationality—and offer learning products to policymakers and technical delegates alike to enable Australian and Indian delegates to serve as ambassadors for our respective nations.

For more on this new and exciting project funded by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade as part of the Australia–India Cyber and Critical Technology Partnership grants, visit www.aspi.org.au/techdiplomacy and www.internationalcybertech.gov.au.