Australia's diplomatic challenge is to avoid a cyber arms race

Belligerent? Paternalistic? Neo-colonial? Australia's assertive new cyber engagement strategy could look very different through our neighbours' eyes.
Written by Stilgherrian , Contributor

Australia's new International Cyber Engagement Strategy blends trade issues, crimefighting, economic development, and national security into a single framework. Coordination makes sense. But how will our regional neighbours interpret Australia's hawkish approach to enforcing norms of behaviour and human rights?

"Australia has developed offensive cyber capabilities," said foreign minister Julie Bishop as she launched the International Cyber Engagement Strategy in Sydney on Wednesday.

"Having established a firm foundation of international law and norms, we must now ensure that there are consequences that flow for those who flout the rules."

Them's fightin' words, as the saying goes. When nation states talk like that, an arms race often follows.

That point was raised by Kavé Salamatian, professor of computer science at the University of Savoie in France, and a fellow at the Centre for Internet and Human Rights (CIHR).

The internet transforms economies. Salamatian says that's a strategic issue.

"Australia has in the region a very specific economic position, especially in the context of information technology," he said. So how do you stop any economic tensions turning into major problems?

"The minister of foreign affairs said that Australia had offensive arms, so how are you ensuring that you are not entering into a kind of arms race in this domain? ... What's quite interesting in the domain of cyber is that small countries even can enter into this arms race," Salamatian said.

According to some analysts, we're already in a regional arms race. Asia is seeing a killer submarine boom, for example. The Royal Australian Navy (RAN) plans to double its submarine fleet. Although fears of an undersea arms race may be overblown for now, the increasing strategic tensions in the South China Sea and in the Western Pacific generally surely point to a need for competent militaries. These days that surely means plenty of cyber.

Australia's Ambassador for Cyber Affairs Dr Tobias Feakin downplayed the "apparent issue" of a potential arms race, a criticism he said was "often levelled at states like Australia" for announcing an offensive capability.

"I would push back and say, 'No, we're not arms racing'. What we're saying is that this is an area of development for the military, as with any other particular area of development that they pursue, and legitimately so," Feakin said.

"The reason that we talk about our offensive capability is because we're willing to actually push that into the international domain, so that we begin to have a more clear-minded conversation about what [the] limitations might be [in using] that kind of capability.

"There are those states that would accuse us of arms racing who could potentially have similar or more advanced capabilities, but are not willing to discuss them. That, in our view, is more irresponsible than actually saying we have this, and we have a certain way in which we use it."

Despite our focus here on defence and security matters, Australia's strategy is intended to "maximise the opportunity for economic growth and prosperity through digital trade" through a "open, free, and secure cyberspace" in the Indo-Pacific region.

If Australia wants to be seen as a true partner in the region, rather than paternalistic or even neo-colonial, it needs to involve all states, large and small. Smaller states will want to develop their digital economies to their own advantage, and avoid being exploited yet again as cyber colonies.

Right now, though, smaller states don't feel that they have much of a voice, according to Elina Noor, director of foreign policy and security studies at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS) Malaysia.

"It's as important for us smaller countries to be involved in that discussion, as it is for the bigger countries, because otherwise we entrench some of those power structures that are prevalent right now in the kinetic world, and transfer them to the cyber world," Noor said.

"If we don't come in on that discussion right now, as it's being concretised, we just end up complaining as we do right now in many of these international fora."

Or perhaps, eventually, turning to that cyber arms race.

Australia's cyber engagement strategy is ambitious, one of only a tiny handful globally. It's great on paper, but as with everything, it's all about the execution.

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