This article is part of the Futures Forecasting series. We’ve asked experts to identify crucial trends – from a shortlist of categories – that will influence national security out to 2035 and how those trends might intersect in a future scenario.

In this article, which explores the future of governance, Chris Zappone concludes that new technologies will become an element of geopolitical and social tension as society and industry adopt platforms outside of the view and reach of their liberally elected governments.

Key trends

1Democracy: As digital adoption deepens, effective democratic governance will increasingly involve technological know-how

The global economy’s further transition toward the digital realm will make understanding technology more central to democratic success. Over time, competition between networks, technology and platforms will track and overlap the contest between authoritarian nations and democracies.

The recent debate around Australia’s COVIDSafe app’s relative privacy and security underscores how the design, coding, deployment, execution and oversight of technology are public issues. Privacy and surveillance are relatively familiar pressure points, corresponding both to longstanding preoccupations in liberal democracies as well as the culture of Western technology.

The challenges stemming from the contested geopolitical environment may be of a magnitude greater including the security and internal harmony of the society and the state.

China-domiciled social media networks – in which political content that would be routine in a democracy can be filtered or elided by the Chinese government—are becoming more popular abroad. As an example, the China-based social media app TikTok is undergoing rapid uptake in liberal democratic societies. The full potential for political censorship and  surveillance would likely not be known until the platform fully consolidates its foreign user base years in the future. By then, it will be difficult to wean the public from the service. 

Advanced commercial sales and distribution networks reliant on technology can not only anticipate consumer demand but provide a rich source of surveillance over Australia.

Increasing, awareness of such vulnerabilities from a national security perspective will be key. Over time, this awareness can help drive Australia’s policy preference for how the economy, state and society should interact with these networks. 

As current efforts to pressure US-based social media companies show, when it comes to action, Australia has only blunt instruments – taxation, inquiries, lawsuits, threats – to influence the behaviour of the leadership of digital networks.

2Network competition: As digital networks extend, tension and conflict over access to the networks will increase

The trend of states increasingly “weaponising interdependence…by leveraging global networks of informational and financial exchange for strategic advantage” will be a familiar notion to Australia’s resource exporters.

In as much as trade occurs across networks, China’s boycott of barley exports in retaliation for Australia’s leadership of the review of the WHO’s handling of the pandemic outbreak, shows how the flow of commodities can be disrupted under state pressure from China. This forces Australian exporters to readjust sales and pricing elsewhere.

In early 2019, China’s port of Dalian froze the importation of Australian thermal coal, an act viewed as political payback for Australia’s decision to block Huawei from participating in the 5G network roll out.

The dominance and regulatory control of many influential financial and digital networks has resided in the West for decades, creating a strategic tailwind for Australia. The US has used analysis of SWIFT banking transactions to fight terrorism and nuclear proliferation.

In trade matters, the US in many – but not all – cases, could be counted on to support fair play in trade disputes, for the broader cause of “free and open” markets, Australia’s preference.

China has now created financial and communications networks (including payment systems and currency) as well as technology standards in an effort to accrue influence in the way the US has since the end of the second world war.

China’s Beidou satellite system now rivals the US-designed Global Positioning Satellite (more commonly known as GPS) system. In a military crisis, Beijing would have greater navigation ability from the system.

3Black elephant: Australia’s access to a crucial commercial or communication network could become blocked, constrained or limited as a result of geopolitical competition

Australia could find its political options constrained or threatened by the networks its population uses. This could happen as a result of a political impasse between Australia and another nation.  Australia could also find itself in the middle of a tug-of-war on network access.

The Australian Competition and Commission is currently seeking compensation from Silicon Valley based-platforms for Australian media content that they share and publicise. If no agreement can be reached between Australian media and foreign platforms, the tech giants could stop indexing news from Australian outlets, blocking them from the platforms’ networks, weakening Australia’s voice in the world.

Meanwhile, even after Huawei was blocked in the 5G network roll-out, the company uses the prospect of a Sino-US split on network standards a rhetorical point to pressure Australia.

China also aims to export technical standards with infrastructure in the One Belt One Road plan to promote standards around ultra-high-voltage electricity transmission, which will drive revenue and influence back to Beijing.

Policymakers may struggle to understand the risks and exposures inherent in various networks. The viral nature of technology promotion shortens decision-making time for government. The uptake of Uber for example rapidly outpaced taxi-networks and state licensing.

The larger concern is that these digital networks can’t always be seen or understood easily by the agencies and departments that should know about them. Publicly available data from fitness trackers provided visibility of US personnel, even in sensitive locations, well before the US military knew.

For exogenous reasons, access or functionality for Australia is reduced because of actions taken elsewhere on the network. For example, the recent Apple-Google “exposure notification” for COVID tracer apps requires phones to not share tracing data with governments. Technologically, this clashes with the COVIDSafe app. Elsewhere, this feature of the Apple-Google coding, done especially for the pandemic, has added a further burden to the adoption of government-coded COVID-tracing apps. In any of these risk scenarios, the more foreknowledge and understanding of the systems involved, the better able Australia will be able to navigate the issues. But that involves an outward view of emerging vulnerabilities and threats.

2035 future forecast

Australia’s politicians will be increasingly challenged by the adoption of technologies throughout society and industry, which will create vulnerabilities for competing nations to leverage access for political gain.

Looking back from 15 years in the future, we will see how the battle over Huawei’s access to Australia’s 5G network was just the first of a many geopolitical contests over network access. In some cases, the dynamics will be reversed with Australia wanting access but being excluded. In others cases, Australia may only discover how dependant it has become on any given network, including highly specific ones, when a crisis emerges.

By the time the government recognises the threat, consumers and businesses within Australia may have integrated the network into their own preferences and systems, raising the prospect of a split between business and society on one hand and national security interests on the other.

In our own contested future, larger powers will increasingly promote systems that consolidate advantages to them. Technology and networks that are better suited for Australia’s national security and governance concerns could be supplanted by newer competitors that are less secure, creating more vulnerability for Australia.

Technological competition between businesses and nations will challenge Australia’s political class and its ability to understand the salient technological issues at play. Effective politicians and parties will need to have a sophisticated understanding of evolving technology as well as a sophisticated understanding of the geopolitical context Australia operates in.

Trade-offs may appear subtle but the decision on one issue can nudge the nation further down the path towards integration and reliance on a larger system in the future. Given the viral adoption of networks, the answer may not be in pure state regulation, but in the encouragement of a particular user culture at home around a particular type of network.

Chris Zappone

Digital Foreign Editor
The Age and Sydney Morning Herald

View Profile