Over the last few days, Prime Minister Narendra Modi held back-to-back diplomatic meetings: An in-person summit with his Japanese counterpart, Fumio Kishida, and a virtual meeting with his Australian counterpart, Scott Morrison. A range of issues was discussed during both meetings but a common underlying theme was the extended focus on the Indo-Pacific region as a whole.
All three countries are part of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue or Quad along with the US, in which technology cooperation has been a key factor in bringing together the States. When discussing the Indo-Pacific, the role of China remains key to these countries formulating their responses and multilateral policies. It is evident that China has now reached the stage of expanding its technological sphere of influence in the region. The private sector, coupled with continuous state support, has managed to gain a foothold in some key technology areas that have served Beijing’s diplomatic ambitions well.
Along with its premier foreign policy project, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the Chinese government has looked at its domestic technology giants to improve its diplomatic relations across the globe and expand its technological footprint. In the era of geopolitical implications of technology standards, it is imperative that a single entity does not dominate the space and influence key technology growth in key sectors. China has already managed to capture regions like Central Asia and parts of Africa by forcefully making these nations embrace Chinese technology.
India, Japan, and Australia, which are technologically competent and growing powers in the region have an opportunity to veer away states in the South, South East, and East Asia from falling into China’s ‘technology debt trap’ that would effectively give China and its companies a lot of control. It is also noteworthy that these three countries are on the path to credible technology cooperation and making it a tight-knit alliance with each having their comparative advantages that can help stop the Chinese juggernaut.
Decoupling critical technology supply chains from countries like China has become important for its rivals in the current political climate. It is not just the hardware supply chains like semiconductors but crucial software and networked technologies like telecommunications, IoT, and quantum that are becoming essential in modern-day commercial and military applications. Keeping Chinese companies and their technology at bay from different States’ technological ecosystems is a way to dilute the influence and stranglehold that China might possess over smaller nations.
Leading the AI and IoT revolution
India, Japan and Australia have varying technological capabilities and different areas of expertise, which when combined can make a formidable alternative to what any Chinese company might offer.
Japan, deemed to be an intellectual powerhouse, showcased its commitment to developing emerging technologies in its Fifth Science and Technology Basic Plan. A targeted focus on digital technologies like the development of artificial intelligence (AI) applications, robotics, and internet of things (IoT) systems have been Japan’s contribution to the global technology ecosystem. The Japanese government has developed an official Artificial Intelligence Technology Strategy, focusing on the country’s AI R&D and industrialisation plan. The government also emphasised the need for AI innovation to improve technological competitiveness and have an upper hand in the geopolitical power dynamics.
The Indian government has identified Japan as one of the critical partners to develop future AI solutions, signing an MoU for advancing AI cooperation between the two countries. At the same time, Australia has been pushing for its foreign ministry’s active role in formulating and setting technical AI and IoT standards. Advocating for a plurilateral approach, Australia has taken the lead in underlining the criticality of AI technology standards and has released an official document on it.
Combining Japan’s AI and IoT prowess, future collaboration with India, and Australia’s single-point focus on developing technology standards related to the field, the three countries can together lead the way in developing a future AI and IoT governance model.
Breaking the Huawei monopoly in Asia
China hit a home run with the rise of its domestic telecommunication giant, Huawei, during the 5G era. Huawei, and effectively China, now owns the most number of patents and technology standards related to 5G technology. With this, China has entrenched itself in the telecommunications domain with companies like Huawei and ZTE setting up communication networks in Central Asian and African countries. The promise and lure of cheap prices, subsidised equipment, and faster access to advanced communications technology like 5G can result in other Indo-Pacific nations overly relying on Chinese telecom technology.
This is where India can play a major role. Having secured approval for its very own home-grown 5G technology standard, the 5Gi, from the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), India has entered the realm of communication standards. The local 5G standard was developed to improve reach and connectivity in India that can serve as a model for other countries in the region. While it is still early days, India can tap into its thriving telecommunication industry to develop new, alternative technologies better suited for the Indo-Pacific region. Many of its telecom giants like Jio and Airtel are also part of the Open Radio Access Network (O-RAN) alliance working together to formulate alternatives to traditional 5G technology.
Japan’s very own communications giant, Rakuten, has also built its existing 5G network on the specifications of O-RAN technology and is currently collaborating with other Indian tech companies for both their hardware and software. The three countries have the necessary competence in 5G but they have to rely on hardware, telecom equipment by US and European companies, and technology standards set by both US and Chinese companies.
A strong alliance between the three countries can help in setting up telecommunication equipment manufacturing units, and dedicated technical experts to develop alternative 5G standards. This can set the platform for others in the Indo-Pacific, reducing the reliance on Chinese technology.
While AI and telecommunications might set the stage, there are other avenues for collaboration. Quantum technologies, which Australia has heavily invested in, and their applications (both commercial and military) is a possible area. India and Japan have started their own national quantum missions and collaborating with an experienced country like Australia can help in developing bigger and better solutions.
The rise of China and its influence in key technology sectors have evoked responses to match and provide credible alternatives so that other nations do not fall into the Chinese technology trap. In this regard, India-Japan-Australia has the capability to work together to develop new technologies as well as create replacements for existing critical ones that China has exported so that the Indo-Pacific region would not be caught depending on Chinese technology infrastructure.
Arjun Gargeyas is a Research Analyst at The Takshashila Institution. Views are personal.