Critical technologies and the Indo-Pacific: the ‘Digital Quad’

Trisha Ray | 10 February 2021


The relationship between Canberra and New Delhi has made significant strides over the past year, buoyed by a growing, shared suspicion of China and a search for reliable partners in light of the United States’ retreat over the past half decade. These two drivers are particularly crucial in the realm of critical technologies: this piece outlines key findings from a joint report by the Observer Research Foundation (India) and the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, which highlights the potential for new partnerships in 5G, AI, quantum computing, rare earths, and space tech.

Strategic Insight

Covid-19 made 2020 a pivotal year. Yet, amidst the pandemic, a new romance bloomed between New Delhi and Canberra. In June 2020, Indo-Australian ties evolved from a Strategic Partnership to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership. While maritime security remains crucial to the relationship, emerging technologies figured prominently in the new level of cooperation. Significantly, the two countries signed the Australia-India Framework Arrangement on Cyber and Cyber-Enabled Critical Technology Cooperation.

The growing closeness on emerging technologies between these Indo-Pacific powers is bolstered by two major drivers: convergence of views on China, and the search for reliable partners as the United States retreats within itself. The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (known informally as the Quad), comprising India, Australia, the US and Japan, continues to be an animating feature of collaboration between Canberra and New Delhi. But this initiative has evolved from a balancer vis-à-vis China’s maritime transgressions, into a launching pad for cooperation on cybersecurity, securing critical information infrastructure (CII), and Research and Development (R&D). As a result, this ‘Digital Quad’will be crucial as these countries deepen their engagement in multilateral and multi-stakeholder norms- and rulemaking processes associated with emerging technologies. This will occur alongside the other tech coalitions of like-minded nations that are taking root such as the proposed D10 club of democracies on 5G and the Global Partnership on Artificial Intelligence (GPAI).

Key findings of the report on ‘Critical Technologies and the Indo-Pacific Policy: a new India-Australia partnership’

Within this context, the New Delhi based think tank, the Observer Research Foundation (ORF) and the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) released their report, “Critical Technologies and the Indo-Pacific Policy: a new India–Australia partnership”. Spanning a range of strategic technologies and critical resources such as 5G, quantum computing, rare earths, Artificial Intelligence (AI), and space technologies, the report provides fourteen recommendations for cooperation along multi-, mini-, and bilateral channels. One notable recommendation, for instance, is the creation of an Indo-Pacific chapter of GPAI, initiated by India and Australia; another calls for the establishment of a Track 1.5 dialogue on space, covering space security, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), space situational awareness (SSA) and maritime domain awareness.

In the short to medium term, with the Covid-19 pandemic further exposing the brittleness of global supply chains, the report specifically finds that India and Australia may turn to each other in their respective quests to diversify. In 5G-related matters, for instance, the two have (explicitly in one case, informally in the other) banned Chinese vendors. While, as the Global Times puts it, the exclusion of Huawei from Indian 5G trials will be “pricey”, the long-term security of CII instead supersedes short-term cost concerns. Significantly, while Australian telcos have expressed their concerns about the Australian ban effectively creating an Ericsson-Nokia duopoly, there is interest in funding new alternatives in both countries. For example, India’s Jio Platforms announced a partnership with Qualcomm in October 2020 to develop indigenous 5G network infrastructure.

Similarly, both India and Australia possess significant reserves of rare earth elements (REEs) – Australia is the world’s second-largest exporter of REEs, and together with India possesses nearly eight percent of global REE reserves. However, both countries remain heavily dependent – like many other countries in the region – on China for REEs to feed their electronics industries. It is significant, therefore, that (alongside the announcement of the India-Australia Comprehensive Strategic Partnership) both countries also signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on critical minerals to “explore opportunities in trade, investment and R&D”.

The India-Australia partnership: beyond supply chain security

In the long term, the India-Australia partnership, as well as a broader Indo-Pacific confluence on critical technologies, requires more than supply chain security and shared wariness of a rising China.

Strong people-to-people ties are often the glue that holds nation-to-nation ties together and tide them through political fluctuations. Accordingly, the ORF-ASPI report advocates for “Prime Minister Indo-Pacific Technology Scholarships”, allowing Indian researchers to undertake fellowships and doctoral studies in Australia.

It will be equally important in the long-term to create higher levels of trust, transparency and accountability, built upon shared values. However, as the world – India included – takes an illiberal turn, prickly issues that do not sit well with India’s longstanding reputation as a diverse democracy will become points of contention, upending this need for trust, transparency and accountability.

Nonetheless, the current momentum in India-Australia relations is still a ­­­game-changer – not just for these two countries, but for the region at large, with promise of a more engaged and proactive role in fostering regional partnerships on emerging technologies. Washington’s recent volatility and Beijing’s machinations have brought the two countries together: New Delhi and Canberra should now make the most of this moment to build an even more resilient, vibrant partnership.


Trisha Ray is an Associate Fellow at ORF’s Technology and Media Initiative where she focuses on Geotech, the security implications of emerging technologies, AI governance and norms and lethal autonomous weapons systems. Trisha is a member of the UNESCO Information Accessibility Working Group.

Authors’ views are their own and do not represent the official position of The Azure Forum.