February 17, 2022

Don’t forget the Indo-Pacific when building new research ties

In The Weekend Australian, in an article about universities strengthening links with the UK, Peter Jennings from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute said that research collaboration would increasingly have to happen with our military allies: “You can choose the West or choose China, that’s the world.”

But the world where global knowledge, research and innovation were dominated by a small number of powerful countries is over. More than ever before, it is in Australia’s strategic interests to build closer ties through education and research with a wide range of countries in the Indo-­Pacific. To focus only on the US, UK and China now misses about half of global knowledge and ­innovation.

In the 1960s, American R&D accounted for 70 per cent of the world total. By the 1990s, that was down to 40 per cent and it is now about 25 per cent, with China rising to a roughly equivalent level. Since 2000, global investment in R&D has tripled, and it has also globalised. Many countries now prioritise investment in education, research and innovation. No one country will dominate globally in the 21st century in the way that America did during the 20th.

Forecasts of global investment in R&D show that the growth between now and 2050 will be in the Indo-Pacific, with one estimate suggesting that America’s share could slip to 15 per cent.

We know that geopolitical shifts bring new risks for international engagement and universities must continue to work closely with government to manage these. We must protect against foreign interference, the theft of intellectual property and threats to the openness and integrity of our education and research ­systems.

In the face of these geopolitical shifts, we should also strengthen collaboration with our allies, particularly in defence R&D. I worked for the last four years in the Australian Embassy in Washington DC and there are major ­opportunities to build upon our longstanding university partnerships for more strategic collaboration in support of mutual policy priorities. The Group of Eight initiative with partners in the UK is also a good move.

But if we focus only on a small number of Western countries and China, we will miss a huge opportunity for Australia. We should balance a strengthening of strategic collaboration with our allies with a push for genuine diversification with the powers of the Indo-Pacific – Japan, South Korea, India, Singapore, Indonesia and others.

We should also ­ensure our commitment to inter­national collaboration in edu­cation and research includes our partners in Pacific Island nations.

The good news is that we have some of the building blocks already in place, but we desperately need a coherent and long-term strategy. Building deep, reciprocal partnerships through education and research takes time, but it is an investment in Australia’s future.

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s New Colombo Plan supports university students to spend time abroad in our region. The Department of Education is working on a plan for diversification in international education. Our two main research funding councils have long resisted bilateral funds with partner countries, but it is good to see the National Health and Medical ­Research Council supporting engagement in the e-Asia initiative, led by Japan and bringing in partners across ASEAN. And in the last budget, the government announced a new Global Science and Technology Diplomacy Fund, but it is not clear yet what it will prioritise. We are going to need new models and a joined-up approach across government to bring them all together.

Australia’s participation in the Quad – with the US, Japan and India – also provides a good starting point for building stronger links in our region.

At the Quad leaders summit in September, there was agreement to boost co-operation in key fields of technology (such as AI, quantum and 5G) and to support new postgraduate scholarships for emerging leaders in STEM fields to study in the US.

We should be engaging more strategically with Japan and India in education, research and innovation, and with other countries in our region as well. We should be exchanging talented postgraduates for the next generation of ­research collaboration with emerging leaders.

Monday’s announcement of new scholarships and fellowships to boost exchange with India was another step in the right direction.

We should also be focusing more widely than a narrow set of technology priorities. As governments in the US – both Republican and Democrat – focus on technology competition with China, there is a huge opportunity for Australia to lead with knowledge of Indo-Pacific societies, cultures and languages. This will be a value-add for our Western allies and a sovereign capability that we will need to secure our own future.

Let’s avoid the trap of thinking that our choices boil down to just the US and China. With confident engagement in our region, universities can play a central role in ­securing Australia’s place in the 21st century.

This article first appeared in The Australian