Edward McCann | Cyber and Technology Fellow
Countries are increasingly recognising the critical role cyber security plays in their national security frameworks. Many nations are unable to invest the money required to keep pace with the rate and sophistication of the cyber-attacks that they are facing. Faced with an increasingly ambitious China, Australia must look for creative and effective ways of building influence both in the Indo-Pacific region and globally.
One approach is to leverage one of Australia’s emerging strengths, cyber security. Compared to key regional players, Australia is a leader in cyber security capability. The Lowy Institute’s 2021 Asia Power Index found that Australia’s cyber capability is ranked seventh in Asia; just above Japan and below Singapore, but well below China, which ranked second. Australia’s ranking is set to increase due to Project REDSPICE, the nearly $10 billion investment into the Australian Signals Directorate. This substantial enhancement will allow Australia to establish itself as a regional cyber security powerhouse.
There is an immediate and first-order benefit to Australia’s national security posture that this investment in our cyber capabilities would provide. However, this also presents Australia with two distinct opportunities to improve its regional standing and its value to allies.
The first is for Australia to prioritise making use of its advanced cyber capability to support aid and development efforts in the region. Cyber security is becoming increasingly important for Indo-Pacific countries. The Centre for Strategic and International Studies has compiled a list of significant cyber incidents since 2006, including many attacks on key regional allies and partners. One example is from October 2021, when the payment systems of Papua New Guinea’s Department of Finance were hit by a ransomware attack. It remains unclear whether full control has been regained, potentially leaving one of Australia’s most important neighbours extremely vulnerable to other threats.
While currently providing ICT development assistance, Australia’s advanced cyber maturity provides a unique opportunity to direct aid efforts towards enhancing the cyber security posture of regional partners. This could include providing study opportunities to senior government officials, delivering financial assistance for greater investments into cyber, and closer cooperation on global technology regulation. Such efforts would contribute to regional stability by reducing the number of incidents, mitigating the impact of disinformation, and ultimately increasing trust with Australia.
The second opportunity for Australia to take a more proactive role in assisting allies is with its own offensive cyber capability, and helping to bolster their cyber security posture. Australia should seek to strengthen the national security and sovereign capability of our Indo-Pacific partners and therefore help contribute to a more stable region. As many of our neighbours are less equipped to deal with cyber threats, there is an opportunity for Australia to take a leading role in this space. This could involve incident response coordination, developing specific operational training for government agencies involved in national security, as well as providing direct assistance in the event of a cyber incident.
Another way Australia can build diplomatic influence is to establish more technology and research sharing opportunities with allies and partners. There have already been strong signals by close allies that collaboration with cyber and critical technology has become a first order diplomatic priority. The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) is a sharp example of this global readjustment of priorities. After the first leaders level meeting in March 2021, the Quad established a ‘Critical and Emerging Technology Working Group.’ By September, they released their joint statement on Quad Principles on Technology Design, Development, Governance, and Use. As well as articulating the value system for research in this space, the statement emphasised the importance of critical technology supply chains, technology standards, and intellectual property safeguards. The AUKUS Pact has identified cyber capabilities, artificial intelligence, and quantum technologies as key areas for cooperation. An AUKUS update in April of this year detailed the steps that had been taken to progress efforts in key areas including advanced cyber, quantum technology, artificial intelligence, and electronic warfare.
By utilising its status as a leading cyber security nation and focusing on cyber diplomacy, Australia can build greater influence and increase its regional standing. As the importance of cyber security becomes more understood, the need for targeted cyber development assistance will grow. Furthermore, enhancements to Australia’s cyber capabilities will strengthen its operational capacity and strengthen relationships with key allies.
Edward McCann is the Cyber and Technology Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.