Last week’s surprise AUKUS announcement by the United States, Britain and Australia has created a frenzy of focus on nuclear-powered submarines, but the bigger picture is getting lost in a sea of naval analysis.
The real potential of AUKUS lies in how the new grouping can be leveraged in the long term to help us deal with the profound technological disruption about to sweep the world.
Modern warfare and geopolitical competition will be marked not just by military action and conventional deterrence, but by ‘hybrid threats’—cyberattacks and data theft, disinformation and propaganda, foreign interference, economic coercion, attacks on critical infrastructure and supply-chain disruption, among others.
Submarines alone won’t counter these threats—nuclear-powered or not—and analysis that focuses only on Australia’s future fleet (or France’s furious reaction) is missing the bigger picture about what AUKUS could and should mean. It has been set up as an information- and technology-sharing arrangement that will focus on critical technologies such as artificial intelligence and quantum. Key to this will be efforts to foster deeper integration of security- and defence-related science, technology and industrial bases, as well as supply chains, which are increasingly open to disruption and coercion.
The AUKUS leaders’ statement doubles down on the importance of the Indo-Pacific, a region where hybrid threats are becoming far more pervasive, in large part because of the Chinese state’s increasingly assertive and aggressive behaviour there.
As the first initiative under AUKUS, nuclear-powered submarines will give our navy a future edge over adversaries.
But far beyond submarines, AUKUS could give Australia a strategic and technological boost for decades.
Few have grasped the enormity of the disruption coming our way as more and more new technologies—from increasingly sophisticated surveillance technologies to quantum and biotechnologies—continue to be deployed across the world. While governments grapple with foreseeing the full impacts and setting policy direction, there’s a growing realisation that emerging and critical technologies will be extraordinarily important for societies, economies and national security.
This is making the race to master them a geopolitical issue. And nowhere is this race more contested than in the Indo-Pacific region, which incubates much of the world’s technological innovation and has become a hotbed of strategic technological competition.
As we have just witnessed with the construction of AUKUS, governments with foresight and policy capability are now making big and quick bets on future technologies, and new groupings or ‘minilaterals’ (like the Quad) are providing vital vehicles to do so. Many are also doing their best to preserve their intellectual property, broaden their research and development base, invest in university sectors and build expertise by attracting and retaining global talent.
But just as AUKUS is not only about submarines, neither is massive technological change only about geopolitics and conflict. At a national level, governments are struggling with how to relate to the commercial sector.
Global debate is raging over who should make the rules when it comes to issues like data protection, privacy, social media and tech standards—governments or industry? It’s sometimes both, and sometimes neither, leaving policy patchy, citizens vulnerable and democratic processes open to interference.
The Chinese state is investing heavily in technologies that it deems to be future-defining—everything from e-commerce to military and space technologies. Simultaneously, the government is also reining in the country’s tech giants for flying too close to the sun, at great cost to the economy, innovation and investor confidence.
In the world’s tech superpower, the US, there’s ongoing talk about the need to break up its big tech conglomerates in an effort to reduce market domination. President Joe Biden has said that social media platforms ‘are killing people’ for allowing misinformation about Covid-19 vaccines to spread.
As if these strategic challenges weren’t already complicated enough, the pandemic has illustrated just how vulnerable states are to weaknesses in global supply chains and has reignited global efforts to build up sovereign technological capability. And in a world where trade is being used as a weapon of coercion, states are also focusing attention on the capabilities of like-minded partners that might be able to fill gaps if supplies from hostile states are cut off. So it’s no surprise that supply chains are a key focus for AUKUS.
Covid-19 has also proved to governments that investment in often overlooked sectors—biotechnology and high-tech manufacturing, for example—could mean the difference between life and death for thousands or even millions of their citizens. Then there’s climate change, which threatens us all. It’s in the world’s collective interest to come together on solutions, which will have to include more public–private collaboration on technologies that could hold the key to our collective survival.
The threats and opportunities posed by technologies are increasingly global in nature. And yet there’s no multilateral forum where governments, business and civil society can come together to deal with these disruptive challenges.
Right now, three big problems must be addressed to ensure the stable development of advanced technologies. First, there’s a large lag between the deployment of new technologies and regulation. With social media, the lag was about a decade. As we’ve seen, this doesn’t lead to good outcomes for individuals, or for societies. In the policy vacuum, companies have been left to arbitrate on everything from defamation and personal disputes to whether certain presidents should be allowed to tweet.
Second, there’s a delay between states’ use of new technologies and society’s consideration of the ethical questions raised by their use. Examples of this can be seen in the global surveillance industry, which has allowed its products to support some of the most egregious human rights abuses of our times.
Third, a tense relationship between governments and technology companies is playing out around the world. The negative dynamic that has taken hold is hindering progress and genuine cooperation, leaving democracies at risk of being left behind.
Left unaddressed, these problems will mean we are unlikely to develop the breakthrough technologies of the future, or to see them rolled out in a way that supports ongoing international stability.
Developments such as AUKUS are important as they’ll help coalesce focus on the technologies themselves, while also encouraging greater technology collaboration.
A better and more global approach is needed for managing the next wave of highly disruptive technologies. And Australia needs to ensure that, particularly in the Indo-Pacific, we’re working hard to lead the way.