The response to COVID-19 is having a transformational effect on the use of digital technologies in Australia, the United States and many other parts of the world.
But the stark gaps in equitable access to the internet across the Indo-Pacific show where Australia and the United States can collaborate to do more for our shared region.
As the foreign and defence secretaries and ministers from the United States and Australia start to prepare for their regular and long-standing ministerial consultations, known as AUSMIN, they should be turning their minds to how both countries can help shape a robust regional digital infrastructure that is based on technical standards that are equitable, industry-set and multilateral.
Digital connectivity is fundamental to economic development, global communication and national security. The flow of data across borders now has a greater impact on GDP growth than the flow of physical goods.
In the Indo-Pacific, digital connectivity is now also an arena of geostrategic and geopolitical competition.
China has long been transparent about their goal to achieve innovation driven development. Their 13th Five Year Plan clearly sets out the shift towards a more digitally enabled economy underpinned by efficient information networks and an ‘opening up’ of China, notably through their Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
The expansion of BRI into the digital realm is known as the Digital Silk Road. This project aims to build “a community of common destiny in cyberspace” by facilitating investment in digital infrastructure, aiding the development of broadband and mobile networks, and financing smart cities and e-commerce hubs throughout Southeast and Central Asia, the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa.
Since 2013, an estimated US $17 billion has been invested in Chinese digital expansion projects.
This expansion of Beijing-led digital projects may accelerate in the wake of COVID-19. China’s economic recovery plan has the development of 5G at its heart, while other Chinese state-championed technology companies have seen COVID-19 as an opening to sell surveillance technology into emerging markets.
Closely associated with this push is Beijing’s growing ambition around shaping global technology standards, imposing a state-centric process on what has traditionally been a technical industry-led arena.
Technical standards have been described as the “connective tissue” of our digital world. Essentially, they are agreed upon technical specifications that allow users, governments and industry to develop and use products and services.
They set the ground rules and shape the nature of the technological systems we use every day.
These highly technical discussions and specifications have traditionally been set by industry. But increasingly, as Chinese state-owned enterprises and industry champions have developed market share and their own technological prowess, Beijing has led an active and state-centric approach to their development.
The danger is that new standards currently being set for emerging technologies like 5G could be designed in a way that favours Beijing’s technology champions, ensuring much of the digital infrastructure of the Indo-Pacific is dependent on supply chains that run through China.
Even though Australia and the United States have their own respective Indo-Pacific digital initiatives, there is an opportunity for both countries to do more**.
Developing nations within the Indo-Pacific region have very low levels of cross border data flows due to poor internet availability. Our neighbouring countries are at risk of falling further behind without investment into the infrastructure of connectivity.
As part of the COVID-19 response, Australia and the United States could look to co-sponsor digital connectivity projects with the private sector in the Indo-Pacific, potentially leapfrogging costly traditional infrastructure and demonstrating the possibility of new technology actors.
America’s tech leaders have already actively expressed interest in providing connectivity to underserved people and places. Alphabet through Project Loon, Microsoft through its Airband Initiative and Facebook’s Connectivity Project are all working to bring internet access to underserved communities.
However, progressing new infrastructure or novel projects won’t matter if the underlying rules and norms are not transparent, balanced and open. The United States and Australia should also strongly back multilateral coordination on global technology standards setting efforts through Standards Australia and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).
Charging Standards Australia and NIST to partner with regional standards setting entities where possible would improve technological capacity across the region, enhancing the role of regulators and officials in developing and using regulations and norms to bolster rules for the region.
Opportunity exists to provide both leadership in a region that is facing growing technological competition and division, and tangible support to Indo-Pacific nations seeking to build the digital infrastructure and government and commercial services that can have a positive social and economic impact.
** Australia has been active in developing regional digital and cybersecurity capability through capacity building programs and its International Cyber Engagement Strategy and has provided significant support for the construction of the Coral Sea Cable System. The United States has incorporated digital issues into its Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy, including establishing a Digital Connectivity and Cybersecurity Partnership with Singapore and providing technical assistance to the Philippines as it establishes its National Broadband Network. Further, Australia, the United States and Japan have made digital connectivity the centrepiece of their trilateral infrastructure development cooperation in the Indo-Pacific, recently reaffirmed in June 2019.
Claire McFarland is Director of the Innovation and Entrepreneurship Program and Brendan Thomas-Noone is a Research Fellow with the Foreign Policy and Defence Program at the United States Studies Centre at University of Sydney. You can access the full report Bolstering resilience in the Indo-Pacific: Policy options for AUSMIN after COVID-19 here.