Australia looks to ring-fence sensitive tech from foreign interference

Australia has become increasingly concerned about the transfer of sensitive technology to foreign military powers. PHOTO: REUTERS

SYDNEY (AFP) - Australia on Wednesday (Nov 17) announced measures to ring-fence dozens of sensitive technologies from foreign interference, stepping up efforts to safeguard against "national security risks" from China and others.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison unveiled a Critical Technologies List at an online forum in Sydney - a step towards limiting what government, industry and universities can and cannot share with foreign counterparts.

The list of 63 critical technologies will include quantum technologies, which are based on the physics of sub-atomic particles, as well as artificial intelligence, drones and vaccines.

The measures aim to "balance the economic opportunities of critical technologies with their national security risks", Mr Morrison told a forum organised by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

Items on the list will not be automatically banned for export or proscribed, but may be subject to "additional risk management", including measures to stop "unwanted tech transfer".

Australia has become increasingly concerned about the transfer of sensitive technology to foreign military powers, particularly to China, under the guise of academic cooperation.

Canberra has also moved to limit the ability of Chinese state-linked firms to operate critical infrastructure in Australia.

A decision to effectively bar Chinese tech giant Huawei from running Australia's 5G network was the catalyst for a major diplomatic rift between the two countries, which has frozen high-level diplomatic relations and a raft of sanctions that some have called a "shadow trade war".

Australia is currently in the process of auctioning off 5G spectrum licences.

Mr Morrison on Wednesday also listed nine critical technologies that will be the focus for investment, hoping the expertise will help "uphold our liberal democratic traditions" in what he describes as an era of strategic competition.

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

"And, in turn, greater capacity to influence the norms and values that will shape technological development in the years to come."

The list also includes nuclear technology - a marked departure for a country that has long been opposed to fission power and currently only has one research reactor.

Australia recently signalled its intention to purchase long-range, ultra-stealthy nuclear-powered submarines from the United States or Britain, cancelling a vast order of diesel-powered subs from France.

But the list goes further, including a range of nuclear technologies linked to power generation, space travel, reprocessing and isotope production.

Many of the other listed technologies have military or dual-use applications, such as synthetic materials that bend light or radio waves, self-fixing materials designed for advanced body armour, laser communications or quantum cryptography.

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