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New Think Tank Report Presents Ambitious Agenda for Australia-India Tech Cooperation

As China’s tech lead help push its international agenda, other Indo-Pacific powers see opportunities for collaboration.

Abhijnan Rej
New Think Tank Report Presents Ambitious Agenda for Australia-India Tech Cooperation
Credit: Flickr/UCL Mathematical & Physical Sciences

A new Australia-India think tank report has put forward an ambitious agenda for bilateral cooperation around five critical technologies. The Canberra-based Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) and New Delhi-headquartered Observer Research Foundation (ORF) released its “Critical technologies and the Indo-Pacific: A new India–Australia partnership” report earlier today, coming at a time when regional relationships and international tech cooperation agenda are both being shaped by China’s assertive rise and growing tech clout.

Speaking remotely at an ORF-organized event yesterday, Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne had made a strong pitch for India-Australia cooperation on emerging tech as well as norm entrepreneurship, noting that “[t]echnology sits increasingly at the nexus of sharpening geostrategic competition.”

Earlier this year, in June, during a leaders’ summit, Australia and India had signed a “Framework Arrangement on Cyber and Cyber-Enabled Critical Technologies Cooperation,” a “Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on Cooperation in the field of Mining and Processing of Critical and Strategic Minerals,” as well as an “Implementing Arrangement concerning Cooperation in Defence Science and Technology to the MoU on Defence Cooperation.” As the report notes, the agreement on cyber and cyber tech is particularly promising given that there is a dedicated R&D fund allocated to it.

The authors — Aakriti Bachhawat, Danielle Cave, Jocelinn Kang, Dr Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan and Trisha Ray – recommend 14 measures to Canberra and New Delhi in order to further collaboration around 5G technologies, artificial intelligence (AI), quantum technologies, critical minerals and rare earths, and fintech in their report. By wisely focusing on civilian tech cooperation – albeit ones with significant strategic import and dual-use benefits – they bypass thorny questions around export control that would present themselves were the report to focus solely on military and defense tech cooperation. The report presents the state of play as well as analyzes complementarities between both countries when it comes to these five technologies.

While the interplay between geopolitics, international economics and technology has sharply come to the fore over the past few years, the idea that technological innovation and diffusion would vastly shape, and perhaps even alter, the global balance of power is not new. In an agenda-shaping 2013 National Interest article, security analysts Marc Goodman and Parag Khanna noted that a “geotechnology” perspective – complementing traditional geopolitics as well as geoeconomics – “offers an understanding of the potent innovations that can tilt geoeconomic advantage through rapid commercialization and can have a major geopolitical impact through strategic deployment and potential militarization.”

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As the ASPI-ORF report states “whereas commercial imperatives once ruled supreme, states are now increasingly concerned with the implications of technology for governance, civil liberties, geopolitics, data protection and privacy, national security, ethics and trust,” even though commercial considerations remain paramount. The end effect from the tangled relationships in the geotechnology-geoeconomics-geopolitics triangle is the need for much greater consultation and coordination between varied stakeholders within and between countries.

On January 1 this year, India’s Ministry of External Affairs established a “New, Emerging and Strategic Technologies” (NEST) division whose mandate involves coordinating foreign technology policy with domestic stakeholders, among others.

The relationship between tech and security, however, is even deeper. Beyond weaponization of emerging tech, some of them – like AI and synthetic biology – present risks by themselves, without malign intent guiding them. Concerns around a super machine-intelligence presenting an existential threat to humanity or a run-away synthetic virus have now entered the highest level of security discourse in many countries, including Australia. At a more quotidian level, AI driven trading algorithms in themselves present significant, systemic, risks to financial-markets stability.

Mitigating some of these concerns involve setting appropriate global norms around development, deployment and diffusion of emerging tech, a particularly challenging task given the presence of both private as well as state actors in the space. At the same time a collective normative agenda – say, for like-minded Indo-Pacific powers when it comes to AI – is unlikely to carry heft if it also does not involve shared capabilities development. Leadership in setting technical standards for emerging tech capabilities also enables fairer global competition.

These will undoubtedly be part of the Australia-India tech agenda, both bilateral as well as, possibly, through small groupings involving other powers, in the future. For starters though, both Canberra and New Delhi would wise to implement the recommendations in the new ASPI-ORF report.