The next half-decade will see "more pronounced competition" between nations when it comes to technology, both civilian and military, according to Peter Jennings, executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI).
Technologies such as 5G, artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, autonomous systems, quantum computing, and "the rest" are "rapidly emerging as the new Cold War frontline in global politics," he told APSI's "War in 2025" conference in Canberra last week.
The technological choices that nations make will be a key factor in shaping international conflict, particularly between the authoritarian regimes and the developed democracies, he said.
In the 2025 timeframe, this includes "the future for coordination of Five Eyes alliance," as well as the democracies that are close to the Five Eyes.
"I think it's very much going to be driven by individual choices that democracies make about 5G, and the kind of technological bets that they're making about the future of technology both to their economies and their military systems."
Australia's Defence Minister Linda Reynolds has already flagged a focus on the Indo-Pacific for the Five Eyes alliance, at least as far as it affects Australia's relationship to the US.
Another key factor, however, is that the development and control of digital technologies is still dominated by private-sector players rather than governments.
"The lack of control and the inability of states to be certain, and to actually control information flows, to control economic flows, is a major, major challenge," said Penny Burtt, Group CEO of Asialink
A handful companies are in control, Burtt noted. Those companies are American, or in China, they're Chinese.
"In the area of global commerce, we are actually dependent globally on about five companies who keep open the entire rails of global commerce," she said.
"In at least one, and actually probably six, countries in our immediate region, their entire payment systems are controlled by companies from outside the region."
Burtt says we don't talk about this technological competition in Australia because we are not home to those key technology players.
"We're not really being a core battleground beyond the 5G question, or [a core battleground for] the intermediation of what are really emerging conflicts in the digital space," she said.
Commercial operations like Google and Facebook also shape what information we see, at least in Western democracies.
"You wish in Australia, and with all due respect to any parliamentarians in the room, you're trying to pass legislation to control what those companies do, and to stop the constant potential friction in areas such as, say, terrorism, freedom of speech, interference in elections," Burtt said, with little optimism.
"Europe has actually been trying, unsuccessfully. Unsuccessfully so far, sadly."
Accelerating technology has broken international trade rules
Burtt said that with accelerating technology, what she referred to as "the global digital commons" is now an area for accelerated competition -- because control is everything there.
"That competition is resulting in what I'm going to call balkanisation of the global digital economy. And that is actually going to undermine, in some really, really important ways, our economic integration, our interoperability of security systems, in all sorts of ways."
For the physical world, there are treaties, arms control agreements, and "understandings about the rules-based order". International trade used to be governed by a "high-functioning multilateral trade system", though it's now less robust.
"We have no such global rules-based order for the digital economy right now. It's such a new area that there are no rules in the WTO [World Trade Organisation]," Burtt said.
"Singapore and Australia see the importance of this, [but] that effort has actually utterly run into the sand. There are no global negotiations going on about how we regulate the digital commons," nor standards for such things as data sovereignty, digital privacy, or the trade in digital assets.
"At the regional level, we have discussions, [but] we have absolutely no obligations," she said.
As ZDNet has previously reported, the United Nations is restarting the process for discussing international rules of behaviour in the cyber realm, and Australia is supporting them both.
Australia has also negotiated some bilateral cyber agreements with countries in the region, including Thailand and China. In the latter case, though, the hacking spree by China's APT10 group and subsequent attacks would seem to make that agreement more aspirational than factual.
The US and regional discussions are largely limited to national security issues, however, such as cybersecurity, cyber espionage, counterterrorism, and cybercrime. These issues are seen as essential for creating trust in the digital economy, but in themselves they are not trade issues.
It's the 1930s all over again
More generally, and more worryingly, Jennings was among the conference speakers who could see the echoes of history.
"What I see over the next five years are a series of continuing trends that don't really help those countries that want to promote an international rules-based system," Jennings said.
"The rise of powerful authoritarian states with growing military power, the drift of weakly-led and fragmenting democracies that are forever looking the other way when it comes to resisting the bad behaviour of revisionist powers, and the search for technology that confers a decisive strategic advantage."
Jennings doesn't believe in history repeating, but he does believe in history rhyming.
"What I've just described to you, the comparison to the middle and later 1930s, is irresistible," he said.
Updated at 10.57am AEST, 18 June 2019: Corrected misattributed quotes.
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