Indo-Pacific tech sector 'ripe for investment' and cyber defence cooperation: Research

Reports for the new Quad Tech Network say nations need to develop a long-term vision for technology, but that Australia is underperforming in research output and advanced digital skills.
Written by Stilgherrian , Contributor

The Indo-Pacific region's tech sector is "ripe for investment", according to Trisha Ray, an associate fellow with the Observer Research Foundation's Technology and Media Initiative.

"Rare earths, which go into all our devices, computers, electric vehicles, and so on, alternatives to untrusted 5G vendors, even basic infrastructure investment in fibreisation of networks, all of these are ripe for investment," Ray said on Tuesday.

"Most of the region, Southeast Asia [and] India especially, are major assembly hubs in global technology trade, but there needs to be more focus on core competencies and capacity building."

One example is semiconductors. The region is home to plenty of pure-play chip foundries, but they generally don't design the chips.

"Most of the value for semiconductors lies in the design, which is why Intel accounts for a quarter of global semiconductor value," she said.

Ray was speaking at the launch of the Quad Tech Network (QTN), an initiative of the Australian government to "promote regional track two research and public dialogue on cyber and critical technology issues" between the four members of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue or "Quad": Australia, India, Japan, and the United States.

The QTN is managed by the National Security College at the Australian National University in Canberra.

Ray's comments were based on the paper she co-authored, titled The Digital Indo-Pacific: Regional Connectivity and Resilience, which was one of four papers released at the launch.

Its recommendations included developing common standards for digital services, such as harmonising national and then regional standards for digital payments; interoperable cross-border digital IDs; and improving digital skills at all levels.

The report notes that Malaysia, India, and Australia's research output "remains far below their potential". While Malaysia has a "high level of digitally skilled workers", and Indonesia and Cambodia "lack basic digital skills".

And while Vietnam "needs to channel its tech talent better", Australia "lacks advanced digital skills".

"We also focus a lot on first order connectivity issues, including just basic electricity, access to reliable high-speed internet, digital literacy, all of these are important elements," Ray said.

According to Martijn Rasser, co-author of the Center for a New American Security paper titled Networked: Techno-Democratic Statecraft for Australia and the Quad, the QTN is a logical expansion of the Quad's remit.

"You have a large portion of the world's GDP and population, shared interests and values, and a common understanding of what it will take to be economically competitive in coming decades, Rasser said.

"In the near term, there's good opportunity to make important strides in areas including setting norms that promote a free and open cyberspace, addressing supply chain vulnerabilities such as for rare earths, and boosting technological innovation for 5G wireless infrastructure."

Australia's cyber diplomacy has already played a key role in setting international cyber norm, although its influence has declined under the Morrison government.

Where is Australia's 40-year tech vision?

Rasser recommended that each of the Quad nations "craft a true national strategy for technology".

"This requires a vision. Where do you want to be 20, 30, 40 years down the road?", he said.

"In what tech areas do you want your country to be the world leader? Where should you be globally competitive? And where are the areas where you can afford to be a fast follower? Because you're not going to be number one in everything, it's just not affordable, it's not achievable ultimately."

Once more it's worth noting that Australia's 2020 Cyber Security Strategy was disappointingly drab and inward-looking, with little expansion on cyber industry development beyond the 2016 strategy.

There's clearly room for improvement here and it's clear to your correspondent that the Australian government will need to spark up its technological nous to meet the challenge.

"The ultimate goal of this strategy should be for a country to empower its citizens, compete economically, and secure your national interests, without having to compromise your values or your sovereignty," Rasser said.

Trust, inclusivity, and governance systems are further issues, according to Professor Jolyon Ford from the ANU College of Law.

"How do you bring along your societies with you, and include them in the conversations about the possibilities and the problems of governance, and include them in in that process?", Ford asked.

"[How do you] build trust, not just in the technologies, but in the frameworks governing those technologies?"

There are limits to state-based and state-led strategies, he said, especially in fields such as artificial intelligence (AI).

Big tech's 'disproportionate role'

"The private sector and big tech firms in particular play such an outsized or disproportionate role in shaping the whole narrative around these technologies and their good or otherwise, and shaping the possibilities of governance models around these technologies," Ford said.

Ford co-authored the paper Embracing Difference: Governance of Critical Technologies in the Indo-Pacific, which examined human rights and ethical issues.

The perennial issue of the importance of sharing cyber threat intelligence was raised by Dr Kohei Takahashi, a researcher at Japan's National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies.

"Australia and the United States are already working on the cyber threat intelligence in the Five Eyes framework. So it is important for the Quad countries to establish a new framework for sharing information on cyber threat effectively," he said.

Takahashi also stressed the importance of establishing a fact-checking system.

"Influence operations in cyberspace using fake news, for example, have become a big issue. It is important for the Quad countries to establish a fact-checking system," he said.

The paper Takahashi co-authored, Cyber Security, Critical Technology, and National Security, also recommended collaborative research on AI and joint cyber exercises.

"AI will be used in cyberspace in the future. It will be necessary for us to promote research and study in this field to enhance our interoperability capabilities," he said.

"Each country has its own strengths and weaknesses. It is important to conduct joint exercises in order to run the strengths of the other potential allies and partners, and to improve their resilience."


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