Australia and India will “soon” launch the Australia-India Cyber and Critical Technology Partnership Grant, Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne announced at ORF-organised cybersecurity conference CyFy on Wednesday. For the grant, the two governments are seeking proposals from industry experts and researchers in the two countries on technologies such as AI (artificial intelligence), quantum computing, and big data. These proposals will be used to contour critical technology frameworks, standards and best practices for the Indo-Pacific region, she said.

Payne further revealed that Australia has invested over $12.5 million (~₹65.7 crore if she meant AUD, ~₹91.6 crore if she meant USD) in cyber partnership with India as part of Australia’s $50 million (~₹262 crore in AUD, ₹366 crore in USD) investment in cyber cooperation in the Indo-Pacific Region.

When Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi virtually met his Australian counterpart Scott Morrison in June 2020, they had announced a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership between the two countries. The two countries, through their foreign ministers, had signed a Framework Arrangement on Cyber and Cyber-Enabled Critical Technology Cooperation.

Closer home, Australia released its Cyber Security Strategy 2020 in August 2020. Payne said that the country will also release an International Cyber and Critical Technology Engagement Strategy later this year. This strategy will address the “increasing interdependencies and linkages between our cyber and technology policy interests”.

The sceptre of China looms large: 5G, cybersecurity

Technological cooperation was discussed by the foreign ministers of India, Australia, Japan and USA when they met last week for the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue in Tokyo, Payne said. The Quad summit of foreign ministers discussed how they could “align as democracies in support of shared interests” and maintain an Indo-Pacific region “governed by rules, not power”, Payne said, in an obvious reference to China.

Payne raised concerns about certain “worrying trends”: use of new technologies like artificial intelligence for facial recognition to oppress rather than empower citizens; location of technology at the “nexus of sharpening geostrategic competition”. The latter was a thinly veiled reference to the global debate around 5G and inclusion of Chinese vendors in the telecom infrastructure, and to Australia’s own battle against Google and Facebook on behalf of news publishers.

Australia’s Ambassador for Cyber Affairs and Critical Technology Tobias Feakin, at another CyFy panel, had said that countries should block high-risk vendors from working on the 5G infrastructure even if it means higher initial costs.

“We have seen both state actors and cyber criminals deliberately target the health sectors of countries around the world, taking advantage of one of our most critical industries when we need it the most,” Payne said. In the last few months, there have been multiple reports of how hackers, with links to the Chinese government, have categorically targeted public and private research centres focussed on developing COVID-19 treatment and vaccines:

  • The American Department of Justice had charged two Chinese hackers for carrying out a decade long campaign against critical sectors in multiple countries, including against companies developing COVID-19 tests and vaccines.
  • Australian Prime Minister had announced in June that a “sophisticated state-based cyber actor” had targeted critical infrastructure, including health, in Australia. While he had not attributed the attack to China, chatter in Australian diplomatic circles had made it clear which state was backing the campaign.
  • India’s own National Cyber Security Coordinator had warned of supply chain infection and the cyber threat to hospitals and medical equipment.

Payne met Indian External Affairs Minister Dr S. Jaishankar at the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue — commonly called as the Quad — on October 6 in Tokyo. The Quad was completed by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi. Jaishankar held bilateral meetings with Payne and Pompeo on the sidelines of the Quad summit of foreign ministers. At the main meeting, the four ministers discussed a number of geopolitical issues, including connectivity and cybersecurity, especially as the threat of China, both cyber and physical, was a key point of discussion.

It is interesting to note that four of the seven signatories to an international statement calling for backdoors to end-to-end encrypted services met a few days before the statement was released. We have reached out to the Indian Ministry of External Affairs, and Australian Foreign and Home Affairs Ministries to find out who signed the statement on India’s behalf.

Increased focus on ‘trust’

For Australia, “grappling with the strategic implications of technological change” is a top tier foreign policy priority, Payne said, especially as “national security, economy and society are increasingly digitised, [and are] dependent on access to open, trusted technology markets”.

The cornerstone of Australia’s policy is to deepen engagement with “trusted partners” on the basis of “shared interests, values, and outlooks”. The aim behind Indo-Australia partnership is to create a “digital Indo-Pacific that is free, open and trusted”, Payne said.

Given the current geopolitical landscape, “trust” emerged as a recurrent theme throughout statements made by diplomats and ministers at CyFy. Singaporean Minister of Communications and Information S. Iswaran, on Tuesday, had talked about the need for mutual trust to facilitate cross-border data transfers.

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