An op-ed by Jennifer Jackett, Sir Roland Wilson Scholar at the ANU National Security College
22 September 2021
The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue will build more momentum when leaders from Australia, Japan, India, and the US meet on Friday, Washington time, for their second meeting this year.
There are strong strategic imperatives pulling Quad nations together. The US is looking to reaffirm its commitment to the Indo-Pacific region, technological disruption is redistributing political power, and the human and economic impacts of COVID-19 continue to reverberate.
Contrary to the views of its critics, the Quad is not all about military moves in the region. Quad leaders have identified many pressing challenges, not least vaccine supply and climate change.
With such a broad agenda, the Quad has to decide where to focus. One issue that cuts across all the others, and which fundamentally impacts our everyday lives, is critical technology.
The future prosperity of nations will be determined by their ability to harness; artificial intelligence for automation and data analysis, biotechnology to cure diseases, clean energy technologies to mitigate climate risks, and quantum information science to solve complex problems.
At the same time, the connectedness of devices through the “internet of things” will enable new vectors for malicious cyber activity and espionage. Military advantage will depend upon how nations can use advanced materials, space-based technologies, and hypersonic systems.
Nations that maintain a lead in the development, use, and governance of these technologies will amplify their capacity to secure their interests and in line with their values.
Each Quad nation therefore has a critical stake. Working together, they have the foundations to maximise the rewards and mitigate the risks critical technologies create.
Quad nations want technology that … supports a world their citizens want to live in – free, open, and inclusive.
In global tech value chains, Quad members have complementary roles. The US and Japan are global high-tech powers, India is rising as a centre of innovation, and Australia has world-class researchers, niche capabilities in areas like quantum, and a growing tech sector. Each partner brings something to the table – whether innovative potential, talent, materials, capital, manufacturing heft, regulatory frameworks, or capacity building know-how.
Moreover, Quad members have converging interests in a reliable, secure, and diverse supply of critical technologies. Fundamentally, Quad nations want technology to develop and be used in a way that supports a world their citizens want to live in – free, open, and inclusive. Each also wants their researchers and companies to compete fairly and reap the benefits of their innovation and investment.
Lastly, Quad members share an ambition to maintain and advance their technological edge. China’s technological rise and the challenges this presents to the US-led technology order only crystallises the sense of urgency with which Quad nations invest in their research sector and industries. Over the long term, they want to be able to continue to develop cutting-edge civilian and military capabilities, compete commercially, and shape global technology governance.
The key issue is how to translate these shared foundations into a strong practical agenda, building on early initiatives of the Quad’s critical and emerging technology working group.
New policy reports from the National Security College’s “Quad Tech Network” provide actionable ideas for a Quad battery partnership, a techno-diplomacy strategy for telecommunications security in the Indo-Pacific region, and biotechnology research and standards collaboration.
The proposals provide an action plan to help drive the bureaucratic engagement needed to deepen habits of cooperation, key to the Quad’s value proposition longer-term.
This is not to say that deepening tech co-operation will be easy. Naturally, there are areas of competition and difference – such as regulatory barriers to digital trade. The Quad’s activities will also continue to raise Beijing’s ire, notwithstanding that the Quad is not a security alliance.
Furthermore, the Quad is not the only voice that exists nor that is needed on critical technologies issues. Many important players, not least ASEAN, but also South Korea, and Canada, the United Kingdom, and European Union, have key roles to play.
The Quad is just one thread in the region’s diplomatic fabric promoting dialogue and co-operation – a counterweight to authoritarianism and coercion pulling at the seams of regional stability. It is a “flexible group of like-minded partners”, who are “all democratic polities, market economies, and pluralistic societies”, that have made the choice to co-ordinate on important policy priorities.
Practical actions will be key to realising Quad leaders’ vision for a “free and open Indo-Pacific”. As Quad leaders approach their next meeting, there is a window of opportunity, and strong foundations, from which to build a positive and practical critical technologies agenda that can reap long-term security and economic benefits for not only the Quad, but the broader region.