Australia will spend $500,000 setting up a tech network among the “Quad” democracies – Australia, the United States, Japan and India – against the backdrop of worsening tensions with China.
The move signals an increased focus on cybersecurity and sensitive technology issues – such as protecting 5G networks and ensuring artificial intelligence is not misused – in a regional grouping viewed warily by Beijing.
With Australia’s foreign affairs and trade department due to release a strategy on emerging cyber and tech challenges before the end of the year, it is encouraging academics to work together on research papers that add to public debate.
Dfat has revealed it is providing the Australian National University with $497,000 to set up a “Quad tech network”.
A newly published notice on the government’s grant website said the network would “support research and promote engagement with academic and thinktank partners on cyber and critical technology issues that reflect Australia’s interests as a liberal democracy committed to the international rules-based order”.
Australia, the US, Japan and India have been stepping up their cooperation through the Quad, formally known as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, with foreign affairs ministers meeting in Tokyo last month for what are expected to become regular talks.
Although Australia maintains it is a diplomatic forum, Beijing fears it could become a Nato-style regional alliance to counter China.
Those fears were heightened earlier this month when Australia rejoined the Malabar naval exercises in the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea alongside counterparts from India, Japan and the US.
But the new tech-focused network shows the cooperation extends beyond government-to-government levels to include universities and thinktanks.
The ANU’s national security college will work on the project with the Observer Research Foundation in India, the Center for a New American Security and Japan’s National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies.
Dfat said the Quad tech network would put forward recommendations “relevant to Australia’s national interests across the breadth of cyber affairs and critical technology issues” while publishing four research papers of between 10,000 and 15,000 words each.
The ANU is expected to organise 12 video teleconference calls between Dfat and the project partners.
One partner, the Observer Research Foundation, hosted a technology conference at which the Australian foreign affairs minister, Marise Payne, called on likeminded countries to work together to build “a digital Indo-Pacific that is free, open and trusted”.
In a speech delivered remotely shortly after her return from the Quad meeting in Tokyo, Payne said Australia’s national security, economy and society was “increasingly digitised, dependent on access to open, trusted technology markets” but there were “some worrying trends globally”.
“Emerging applications of technologies, such as the use of artificial intelligence for facial recognition, are increasingly used to oppress, rather than empower, citizens,” she said, without naming who was acting in this way.
“Our response must involve adapting to technological change in a transparent way, while enforcing the rule of law, promoting individual human rights and deterring malicious activity.”
Dfat is putting the finishing touches on a new cyber and critical technology international engagement strategy which will cover how government can work with industry, civil society and academia to advance those interests internationally.
The document is also expected to examine which technological developments present the greatest risks or opportunities for Australia and the Indo-Pacific.
In a submission to Dfat’s strategy planning process, the Cyber Security Cooperative Research Centre argued the implementation of 5G networks would “have a profound influence on geopolitics moving forward because a threat anywhere in the network will be a threat to the whole network”.
The Chinese tech giant Huawei used its submission to Dfat to call on Australia to adhere to the principle of “openness and transparency” and explore solutions “based on facts with international stakeholders”.
The then Turnbull government’s decision to block “high-risk vendors” such as Huawei and another Chinese telecom, ZTE, from the 5G network in 2018 continues to be a source of friction in the diplomatic relationship with Beijing.
It was among 14 items on a list of disputes with Australia that the Chinese embassy in Canberra provided to Nine News early last week.
The embassy said the 2018 ban was based on “unfounded national security concerns” and Australia was “doing the bidding of the US by lobbying other countries” to adopt similar measures.
It also accused Australia of making “thinly veiled allegations against China on cyber attacks without any evidence”.
Scott Morrison, the prime minister, said in June that a wide range of political and private-sector organisations in Australia were being targeted by a “sophisticated state-based cyber-actor”, but he did not name the country.
A Chinese embassy official told Guardian Australia on Friday that problems in the relationship were “all caused by the Australian side” and Canberra should stop treating China as a strategic threat if it wanted to resume ministerial level talks that have been frozen since early this year.
The Australian trade minister, Simon Birmingham, insisted on Sunday that “the ball is in China’s court” for engaging in high-level dialogue to resolve the tensions, but he argued the Chinese embassy had taken a number of unhelpful actions this year.