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Building an India–Australia partnership on critical technology

Posted By , , , and on October 15, 2020 @ 15:01

While the Covid-19 pandemic has damaged economies and profoundly affected people’s health and wellbeing, it has also highlighted our dependence on technology and the extent to which we’ll rely on the next wave of technologies to drive future prosperity. Covid-19 has also accelerated strategic competition between nations, particularly the US and China. Much of that competition centres on technology and data: Who owns and controls it? How is it being used? What rules, norms and standards are different countries abiding by?

This competition is quickly spilling over into international forums, including standards-setting bodies, and it’s throwing up new challenges to global technology companies. It’s also leading to new partnerships and presenting opportunities to deepen existing partnerships, as countries find more commonalities in the multitude of technological challenges they face. More opportunities are arising—and arising quickly—for practical cooperation to help deal with these challenges.

One such opportunity—and partnership—is the India–Australia relationship, which is rapidly becoming one of the most important pillars of the Indo-Pacific. The relationship has travelled real distance over the past few years—politically, economically and militarily.

Today, it’s increasingly clear that neither Canberra nor New Delhi believes—as they may have a few years ago—that China will rise peacefully and that their relationships with Beijing will be primarily based on ‘win–win’ cooperation. In contrast, recent actions taken by Australia and India in response to the Chinese Communist Party’s assertiveness in the wake of Covid-19 have reinforced mutual perceptions of each other’s reliability.

The intensifying geopolitical competition between the US and China over the past few years has coincided with the emergence of a more isolationist and transactional US administration, which has altered the foreign policy calculations of middle and rising powers in the region. Canberra and New Delhi remain wary of Washington’s ability to maintain a rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific on its own.

Of course, there are challenges in the India–Australia relationship, as there are in all relationships. Rising illiberalism in India, particularly with regard to the treatment of minority communities and developments such as increases in internet shutdowns, sit uncomfortably with Canberra as the government works hard to forge a closer relationship; it also contrasts with the strong international voice India has as a leading and diverse democracy. On the other hand, the memory of Australia abandoning the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue in 2008 due to the Chinese government’s sensitivities explains the bureaucratic inertia and reticence informing New Delhi’s attitudes vis-à-vis Canberra even today.

Nonetheless, India’s long-held suspicions of Australia’s over-reliance on China’s economy are giving way to an acknowledgement of Canberra’s assertion of its national interests in the face of Beijing’s diplomatic and economic coercion. Significantly, Canberra has also voiced its support for New Delhi in the ongoing Sino-Indian clash in Ladakh, which is a considerable shift in its diplomatic position on China–India relations and is likely to further consolidate ties.

This year’s June 2020 virtual summit between prime ministers Narendra Modi and Scott Morrison signalled the beginning of a new, deeper phase in the relationship. The agreements signed by Modi and Morrison on cyber and critical technologies and on strategic and critical minerals stand out as areas of cooperation where the two countries have clear, and often untapped, synergies, different competitive advantages and growing industry interest, and—importantly—are increasingly prepared to invest.

Our report, Critical technologies and the Indo-Pacific: A new India–Australia partnership released today by ASPI’s International Cyber Policy Centre and Indian think tank the Observer Research Foundation, argues that both governments, with support from industry and civil society, should invest in building a new India–Australia partnership on technology. Positive momentum and a foundation for such a partnership already exist, and further investment in areas of complementary interests could stimulate regional momentum in a range of key critical and emerging technology areas, including in 5G, artificial intelligence, quantum computing and space, and in critical minerals.

There are opportunities for India and Australia to prioritise coordination and collaboration in standards-setting bodies, to work more closely together in space security governance, and to more actively promote policy discussions in the Indo-Pacific on AI, data policy standardisation, data protection and data ethics. The elevation of these issues as a bilateral priority could take place at a new annual Track 1.5 dialogue that focuses on critical and emerging technologies and brings together experts from government, industry, think tanks and academia. One focus of the dialogue should be on developing norms for the use of critical and emerging technologies that could also provide broader lessons for the Indo-Pacific region.

Our report also recommends that the Australian government launch a new initiative we’ve called the Prime Minister’s Indo-Pacific Technology Scholarships. The scholarships could help stimulate stronger research and development links between Australia and India and should be awarded to researchers in universities and think tanks in India to undertake PhDs, research and think-tank fellowships in Australia. The scholarship program could start in India and gradually expand to include other countries. Quantum, AI and space technologies could be key priority areas for the program. The scholarships would be prestigious and should be awarded in consultation with Australia’s chief scientist and the Indian prime minister’s principal scientific adviser.

Covid-19 has placed supply-chain security and reliability front and centre for the world’s decision-makers and is leading to a push to find alternative sources of digital technologies and critical inputs, such as rare-earth minerals. This is another area in which Australia and India may find complementary interests, particularly in fields such as advanced and high-tech manufacturing. While India is keen to burnish its credentials as an alternative hub for manufacturing, Australian industries could benefit through better access to India’s large supply of cost-effective labour and technical talent.

Covid-19 provides an opportunity for both sides to build a solid bilateral relationship in its own right, rather than within the context of the larger, and increasingly tense, US–China relationship. And nowhere is there more opportunity in this expanding and evolving relationship than in the area of technology.

In a post-Covid world, trust will be the main currency in the international system. Countries will look foremost to invest in partnerships with nations they can rely upon to act consistently with their commitments, whether on trade, infrastructure, defence, supply chains, cyberspace or technology. In an environment in which trust is more important than ever, India–Australia ties have an increasingly bright future.

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[1] agreements: https://www.dfat.gov.au/geo/india/Pages/joint-statement-comprehensive-strategic-partnership-between-republic-india-and-australia

[2] report,: https://www.aspi.org.au/report/critical-technologies-and-indo-pacific-new-india-australia-partnership

[3] Observer Research Foundation: https://www.orfonline.org/

[4] Positive momentum: https://www.foreignminister.gov.au/minister/marise-payne/speech/observer-research-foundation-cyfy2020-conference