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Australia seeks to keep key tech out of wrong hands

November 17, 2021

Canberra fears that countries such as China are gaining access to Australian innovations, often through academic cooperation.

Australian scientists studying rare earth crystals
Australia is a world leader in several technological areasImage: Photoshot/picture alliance

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Wednesday listed several areas of technology he said were vital to his country's interest, pledging millions to safeguard them from strategic rivals. 

The move comes amid increased tensions with China, with Canberra increasingly concerned that Beijing could be benefiting from Australian technological know-how — often through joint research projects — to help it dominate in the sector.

Among other things, Canberra has effectively barred the Chinese company Huawei from operating Australia's 5G network, a move that initiated a major diplomatic rift between the two countries.

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What did Morrison say?

"In most cases having diverse well-functioning markets can meet our technology needs, but in some cases — for critical technologies — we need to ensure we can access and use such technologies reliably and safely, in good times and bad," Morrison said in a speech at a forum hosted by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

"This investment will help secure future economic opportunities for Australian businesses, create local jobs and importantly, it will help keep Australians safe," he added.

"Australia is working with like-minded countries, liberal democracies in particular, to ensure global technology rules and norms reflect those values – liberal democratic values," the prime minister said.

He said protective measures would aim to "balance the economic opportunities of critical technologies with their national security risks."

"The simple fact is that nations at the leading edge of technology have greater economic, political and military power," he said.

Scott Morrison
Morrison said protecting technologies would protect AustraliansImage: Thomas Samson/AFP/Getty Images

What areas does government want to protect?

Morrison said Australia had identified 63 sensitive technologies that it wants to protect from foreign domination.

The list includes 5G communications, quantum technologies, artificial intelligence, advanced magnets, 3D printing, drones, vaccines, genomics and novel antibiotics. For quantum technology alone, Morrison pledged  A$100 million ($73 million, €64.6 million) to help research in the sector gain a global market footing.

Quantum technologies, which are based on the physics of sub-atomic particles, are expected to play an ever-growing role in areas such as health care, finance, artificial intelligence and weather forecasting.

A 2020 report on the sector by the CSIRO, the country's science agency, said the industry could generate more than $4 billion and 16,000 jobs within the next two decades.

Others listed technologies have military or dual-use capacities, such as light-refracting synthetic materials, laser communications and quantum cryptography.

 Rare earth crystals photographed under ultraviolet light
Australian scientists are active in many research areas, such as the study of rare earthsImage: Photoshot/picture alliance

 What protective measures are to be taken?

Restrictions may be imposed on domestic universities conducting joint research with foreign institutions in the 63 areas identified.

Morrison said such technologies would not be automatically banned for export or proscribed, but could be subject to "additional risk management," such as measures to stop "unwanted tech transfer" from government, industry and universities.

tj/dj (Reuters, AFP)