Daniel Phelan is a fourth-year undergraduate student at Monash University studying International Relations, and a Project Officer for ASEAN-Australia Strategic Youth Partnership (AASYP).
AUKUS – the historic technology sharing agreement between United States, the United Kingdom and Australia in 2021 – has thrown a spotlight on the importance of collaboration on critical technologies to contemporary relations in the Indo-Pacific.
Australia should focus on investing in research and development not only domestically, but expanding technological collaboration with Indo-Pacific partners in critical areas such as quantum computing or energy. This would ensure that Australia can continue to work with its regional partners in the Pacific and South-East Asia by promoting regional engagement and achieving technological developments that are in the interests of all.
Such a collaborative approach can help ensure the region is not bound to single sources of technological innovation, investment and supply chains, which would weaken the prospects of a ‘free and open’ Indo-Pacific.
AUKUS presents Australia with a practical opportunity to proactively collaborate in the development of critical technologies in the Indo-Pacific. While much of the attention has been on the delivery of nuclear-powered submarines, it is not the sole focus.
AUKUS has four key pillars, one of which is the aim to develop and share new capabilities in key areas of the emerging technologies. of artificial intelligence, cyber, quantum and undersea technologies to achieve newfound capabilities prior to the supply of nuclear submarines.
It also favours new levels of defence collaboration between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States and potentially other states such as Japan in the future. This will ensure that more pronounced and efficient developments can be made towards understanding and improving the use of these emerging technologies in a more effective way.
The technological aspects of AUKUS present an important opportunity for key players in the region to drive military progress and collaboration in more specific areas than other minilateral’s, such as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue. AUKUS will need to focus on addressing the existing digital divide, especially the gaps in education, research and training that are prevalent in the region.
If AUKUS can encourage greater technology and research collaboration between militaries it may promote greater public and private partnerships across states in the future. This would ensure a freer and more open Indo-Pacific through improved inter-connectedness and greater investment in the region. AUKUS also presents a newfound opportunity for its member’s militaries to develop quantum technologies, cyber capabilities and norms across cyberspace.
Emerging and critical technologies are sorely lacking investment in Australia, and any hopeful startu-ups are likely to seek greater funding options from states such as the US and China. Australia has an opportunity to not only invest in domestic companies but seek out opportunities to assist other start-ups and partner with likeminded technological innovators in the region such as Singapore.
The need for Australia to speed up research and development into quantum computing technology also comes from a lack of investment in Australian companies to compete on the international stage. The recent federal announcement of a Quantum Commercialisation Hub is a step in the right direction, alongside the flagged collaboration between Australian and the US to ‘co-operate’ in the sector.
AUKUS’ technological collaboration hubs should be implemented with various locations throughout the Indo-Pacific, which would ensure integration with regional states to truly contribute to a free and open Indo-Pacific. This would also bolster militaries of these nations to continue to improve norms and capabilities in areas of emerging technology.
Greater Australian investment into renewable energy technology such as supercapacitors and photovoltaics would ensure these nations would not be dependent on imported fuels and resources. Furthermore, developing these technologies would place Australia into a position in which it can utilise its sun rich resources.
This, alongside developing batteries with a more efficient and larger capacity, should lead to more opportunities such as the planned Australia-Asia Power Link by Sun Cable from Australia and Singapore. Australia has already expressed its desire to develop critical technologies with its recent Action Plans for Critical Technologies. This should include space for cross investment amongst states to develop technologies together, aiming to better integrate and increase the technical skills of workforces which may fall behind without more collaborative investment and engagement.
Ensuring Australian investment into the region is more proactive rather than responsive to patterns of investment from other states in the region will ensure that it has enduring, positive impact on economic development and help position Australia as a more engaged and collaborative partner in the region. AUKUS has drawn mixed responses from the region, and this approach would allow deeper engagement across all states in the Indo-Pacific and give new minilaterals a better opportunity to be seen more favourably.