Western and media attention may be focused on the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, but countries have not taken their eyes off the Indo-Pacific, where there is clear evidence of the changing world order. This is evidenced by the signing of the India-Australia Economic Cooperation and Trade Agreement in Goods and Services earlier this month.
The botched US withdrawal from Afghanistan, followed by China’s serious interest in creating new economic, military and political alliances, and the looming energy crisis require nations to realign their strategic and long-term interests. The Indo-Australian ECTA is a concrete example of bilateral trust in shared values and understanding of threats and goals. A reflection of this is cybersecurity collaboration.
The conflict between Russia and Ukraine has shown how both state and non-state cyber threat actors have become significant players in hybrid or “unrestricted” warfare. Both countries have unleashed malicious elements in the intelligence and operations space, while non-state actors such as the hacktivist group Anonymous have claimed to have caused significant damage to critical Russian and Belarusian financial and military infrastructure.
China is accused of amassing large numbers of cyber weapons and allegedly conducting sophisticated operations aimed at espionage, intellectual property theft and destructive attacks on some countries’ internet resources. Australia and India have been the target of several such campaigns by so-called Advanced Persistent Threat (APT) groups, which are backed by or believed to be based in China.
At the virtual bilateral summit in June 2020, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Australian counterpart Scott Morrison elevated the bilateral relationship to a comprehensive strategic partnership. The new cyber framework includes a five-year plan to work together on the digital economy, cybersecurity, and critical and emerging technologies. This is supported by a $9.7 million fund for bilateral research to improve regional cyber resilience.
An annual Cyber Policy Dialogue, a new joint working group on cybersecurity cooperation and a joint working group on ICT have been established. An annual cyber framework dialogue is held between the foreign ministers of India and Australia. India is now being included in a core Australian initiative called the International Cyber Engagement Strategy – it began actively implementing capacity-building activities in Indonesia, Singapore and Thailand in 2017, and supporting similar activities in Malaysia, Vietnam and Cambodia. In 2021, Australia added critical technologies to the initiative, making them important for the bilateral partnership with India and for the Quad.
India has much to learn from Australia’s reserved but smart cyber savvy. The Australian Cyber Security Center (ACSC) in Canberra is the country’s hub for cybersecurity information, advice and support. It draws on expertise from national law enforcement, intelligence, criminal investigation and national security agencies. ACSC has a partnership program with the corporate world to facilitate the sharing of threat intelligence. AustCyber, another government initiative, aims to build an internationally competitive domestic cybersecurity industry.
India has established the Office of the National Cybersecurity Coordinator, a National Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT-IN), a National Critical Information Infrastructure Protection Authority (NCIIPC) and made appropriate amendments to the Information Technology Act and Regulations to improve its cybersecurity posture. This moved India up to 10th place in the 2020 Global Cyber Security Index (GCI) from 47th place just two years earlier. India has capable cybersecurity professionals.
In February, the foreign ministers of India and Australia recognized cooperation on cyber governance, cyber security, capacity building, innovation, digital economy, cyber and critical technologies as an essential pillar of the ties between the two countries. A joint center of excellence for critical and emerging technology policy based in Bengaluru will be established.
India and Australia share common concerns related to 5G rollouts, threats from APT groups, cybercrime, information warfare and threats to a democratic order. Deepening cooperation can open avenues for mutual learning and create complementary markets for cyber tools and technologies, promoting bilateral deals and strategic commitments on both continents.
The author, Adjunct Distinguished Fellow for Cyber Security at Gateway House, is a senior IPS officer. The views expressed are personal