Why Australia needs a cyber approach to the Quad

Author: Daniel Phelan, Monash University

Australia’s cyber capabilities present a huge opening for progress to be made, especially in terms of closing gaps upon certain cyber norms such as propelling interstate cooperation on security and protecting critical infrastructure. Australia can work towards acting as a regional ‘cyber-superpower’ towards its neighbours in the South Pacific alongside nations like Singapore with similar interests. This would ensure Australia and its allies can promote effective and positive cyber norms, while also enacting measures to prevent foreign interference.

To bolster the region’s cybersecurity infrastructure, Australia should use its existing cyber capabilities to foster an approach that promotes the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue. Key goals should include preventing foreign interference in Australia and assisting regional partners to protect and improve their supply chain infrastructure.

The Quad has evolved into a grouping which aims to quell aggressive expansion in the region. Adopting a focus on cybersecurity measures will align with this approach, while securing infrastructure in the region into the future.

Cybersecurity issues are at the forefront of the agenda for many states in the region in response to the ever-increasing occurrence of cyberattacks. Taiwan faces 20-40 million cyberattacks per month, while Cambodia has reported the hijacking of key supply chain infrastructure and its foreign ministry by Chinese attackers. A continued lack of investment into cybersecurity will drastically deepen the impact and regularity of such attacks launched by various state and non-state actors.

This illustrates the need for international groupings to exist and to respond to such issues. The Quad is well-placed to take the reins in the region’s response. The Quad is already versatile in its positioning in areas such as responding to defence and health security issues due to the diplomatic and strategic objectives of Quad nations. As a strategic dialogue, the Quad can quickly respond to cyber-attacks in a collaborative manner, by also bringing other nations in the Indo-Pacific together to balance against states attempting to misuse cyberspace.

Cyberattacks may disrupt health facilities, electrical grids and food supply chains, presenting dire implications for the stability of regional states. Particularly, for states in the South Pacific already being heavily affected by climate change, cyberattacks to supply chain infrastructure would represent another devastating blow.

China has recently expanded its investment in the Indo-Pacific region through its ‘digital silk road’ policy, building 5G networks and data centres in the region. And the United States’ approach through the ‘digital connectivity and cybersecurity partnership’ has promoted free, open and secure internet in the Pacific.

These investments aim to fill the gap in digital infrastructure, which is much needed to ensure states in the region do not fall too far behind. Currently less than 15% of the Asia-Pacific region has access to broadband, equating to 2 billion people in the whole Asia region. This lack of digital access disproportionately affects low-income populations and women in these areas. This also contributes to the limited access to quality of life improvements and economic opportunities in the increasing digital age we live in.

The Quad’s alignment with some of the region’s major powers allows it to be at the forefront of progress on cybersecurity issues in the region. One of the major focuses of the Quad should be to utilise existing infrastructure in the region, such as the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF).

States such as Singapore and Taiwan have already broadened their focus on cybersecurity. Taiwan’s ‘Cyber Warfare Branch’ has become the first independent military cyber command in the world. Meanwhile, Singapore is investing $1 billion over the period from 2020-2023 to improve cybersecurity and data security capabilities, as well as establishing the ASEAN-Singapore Cybersecurity Centre of Excellence.

The Quad can assist these developments through potential contributions like a cyber stability board. This could develop protection and resilience in responding to cyber threats. Creating greater resilience and tailoring cyber offensive capabilities are important to gaining asymmetrical cyber advantages.

Australia has a key role to play in the Quad, representing the interests of not only itself, but its neighbours throughout the PIF. Australia’s own cybersecurity centre is a member of the Pacific Cybersecurity Operation Network (PaCSON). PaCSON aims to improve collaboration and work closely with organisations in the region, mirroring Australia’s interests as outlined in the Department of Foreign Affairs Cyber Cooperation program in the Pacific region. Australia’s focus on empowering collaboration and information sharing is an important component of regional cybersecurity, as it creates greater connections to respond to and analyse cyber incidents.

The Boe Declaration is such a step Pacific states have already taken, enshrining the importance of cybersecurity to ‘maximize protection and opportunities for Pacific infrastructure and peoples’. These approaches should be expanded and honed through the Quad to promote the importance of cyber issues in the region and develop greater resilience to cyberattacks from state and non-state actors in the region.

Australia can spearhead the Quad’s approach to cybersecurity developments in the wider Indo-Pacific. Emphasising a multilateral approach will help build resilience from foreign interference and encourage collaboration through information sharing. It will be important to ensure states in the region can be more adaptive to cyber developments as these measures are enacted, while bolstering the security of digital infrastructure.

Daniel is a fourth-year undergraduate student at Monash University studying International Relations, Computer Networks and Security & Chinese (Mandarin) Studies.