The future of Indo-Pacific alliances – tech, not treaties

By Dhruva Jaishankar

Most people think about an “alliance” as a commitment by two or more countries to defend each other in case of war.  So in Asia for example, the security architecture has traditionally been characterized by mostly bilateral alliances with the United States, as Washington contested the Soviet Union, China, and North Korea.

But a different kind of alliance is now emerging across the world – one that involves close cooperation between countries on critical and emerging technologies.

This change will have both economic and military implications that will, in turn, reshape the geopolitics of the Indo-Pacific. 
A series of critical and emerging technologies are now integral to basic infrastructure, economic growth, and people’s day-to-day lives. These include the hardware and computational capabilities that underpin digital technologies like artificial intelligence and quantum computing, as well as semiconductors, 5G/6G telecommunications and more. Other emerging technologies include new kinds of manufacturing and materials (including nanotechnologies and additive manufacturing), biological and health technologies, space, automation, and clean and renewable energy.
These sectors will not just be lucrative for those who develop them; they will also be vulnerable to weaponization and are already domains of intensifying competition. Moreover, supply chain shortfalls experienced following the Covid-19 pandemic and Russian invasion of Ukraine have added to concerns about the availability and control of these critical technologies.
Many traditional supply chains – such as commodities and non-critical manufactured goods – are globally integrated and are likely to remain so. But the globalization of critical and emerging technologies will require a higher degree of trust between countries: being connected in a supply chain that makes jeans is one thing, but being a link in a chain that makes facial recognition-enabled surveillance cameras is another. A natural consequence is the emergence of what a colleague of mine, Dr. Andreas Kuehn, calls “tech alliances.”
Some of these “tech alliances” are already beginning to take shape, with the Quad perhaps the most significant such tech alliance in the Indo-Pacific. Just two years ago, the Quad had only a loose set of principles and initial working groups on health, critical and emerging technologies, maritime issues, infrastructure, cybersecurity, and space. Today, it has an investors’ network, research fellowships, a maritime information sharing mechanism, and the deployment of an open radio access network among several concrete deliverables.
While tech alliances may be relatively informal, involving the public, private, and academic sectors of a loose coalition of countries on an issue-by-issue basis, it will require hard choices on the part of various actors. Cooperating with one country on certain sensitive technologies will, in practice, require creating firewalls to separate them from the technologies of competitors. This may mean, at a minimum, physically separating facilities and personnel working on defence, communications, or computing, or even signing up wholly to one or another country’s critical technology ecosystem. While the countries of South and Southeast Asia, the Indian Ocean, South Pacific, Africa, and the Middle East may try to keep multiple options open, such balancing acts will prove more difficult in the years to come. 

The world is facing enormous change in the decade ahead. And one of the key ones will be that alliances will be defined less by military treaties and more by choices on critical and emerging technologies.

For a country like Australia – which is rich in critical minerals and has an advanced workforce capable of innovation and precision manufacturing – this renders potentially significant advantages. If Australia can build its critical minerals processing capability and a defence industry takes root as a consequence of AUKUS, Australia will be primed to play a pivotal role in the emerging geopolitical architecture of the Indo-Pacific.

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