A road map for Quad’s emerging technology working group

The second in-person summit of Quad is all set to be held in Japan on May 24. The leaders of the four countries are expected to announce future partnerships and projects across various sectors. As many as 12 working groups have been created thus far as part of the Quad grouping. Among them is the critical and emerging technology working group that was established in March 2021 to foster technological collaboration.

The official statement released by the White House post the first-ever in-person Quad summit outlined the broad areas that the partners were looking at. From 5G and semiconductors to biotechnology, critical areas were identified for the alliance to develop a strategic advantage. With the launch of the Quad Semiconductor Supply Chain Initiative, the group signalled its intent to establish itself in the technology domain.

Fast forward around nine months from the first summit in September 2021 to the upcoming one in May 2022, there still exists uncertainties regarding the commitments made on the technology front. There is also the question of the extent to which progress has been made by the member states regarding critical and emerging technologies. With the remnants of the Covid-19 pandemic and new geopolitical events such as the Russia-Ukraine war still affecting several technology supply chains, Quad has to move forward in its actions to make a mark. There are three main areas of focus that Quad should focus on to create an immediate impact in the technology domain.

Bubbles of trade

Extending the concept of the “bubbles of trust” approach that envisages better diplomatic relations between like-minded states, Quad should set up a mechanism for the free flow of goods, labour, and capital related to strategic technologies. Taking the example of the semiconductor industry, it is clear that key technology sectors have burgeoned globally and have relied on international cooperation for their growth and sustainability. This ensures that they cannot be restructured in such a short period. A robust infrastructure and an efficient value chain has been developed in high-tech sectors due to the existence of free trade.

But the current situation has thrown up several key challenges for Quad to navigate. This includes protectionist measures resulting in high import tariffs and export control regulations preventing access to critical components for building key technology ecosystems. The military applications of these technologies have also raised the fears of weaponisation resulting in lesser collaboration efforts.

Quad should aim for creating a more liberalised and open market policy that helps the four countries indulge in a greater exchange of goods, labour, and capital related to strategic technology sectors. Favourable trade policies encouraging the exchange of technology sector centric trade must be a priority. The governments of Quad should focus on developing a comprehensive trade policy suited or catered to building strategic technology ecosystems across all the states.

A robust IP protection regime

With the technological rise of China and the fears of economic espionage, there has been a restriction in the transfer of critical technology between states thereby hampering the level of growth and innovation in certain fields. This can be addressed by Quad coming together to build a strong intellectual property (IP) protection framework. It can help in formulating transfer of technology agreements in critical technologies between the states without fears of IP theft.

Securing technology supply chains have become a challenge due to the intrinsic dependencies that have been created in several areas. Technology transfers remain a solid solution to build resiliency in these value chains themselves. However, the qualms of the IP owning countries has been the fear of these critical technologies leaking out and reaching adversaries.

A starting point for Quad would be to introduce and ensure the enforcement of strict IP theft rules and regulations to facilitate technology transfer agreements. Prevention of exports, restrictions on domestic operations, and levying fines or penalties for specific firms violating IP theft guidelines will ensure innovation-based competition and create a favourable environment for multilateral collaboration. It must be noted that almost all modern-day technological powers have benefited from the transfer of technology from more advanced states. Hence, it remains in the interest of Quad to share critical technologies between its alliance members.

Joint standards development

The race for technological superiority has moved from the domination of market share to the establishment of governance mechanisms of certain critical technologies. This is where technology or technical standards come into play. Setting standards in crucial technologies have allowed states and companies to reap economic and geopolitical benefits. Quad has the collective technical expertise to formulate and set technical standards in various emerging technologies.

In recent times, there has been a steady increase in governments’ participation in the process of standard-setting. States are now openly advocating for certain technical standards to be adopted as the global ones which would eventually benefit the state and its domestic private sector. Quad, as a group, must prioritise pre-standardisation research as well as advocate and push for jointly developed technical standards at international standard-setting bodies.

An increase in Chinese influence on these global standard-setting bodies has set alarm bells ringing in the West. Quad can take over the mantle and establish committees to spearhead standard development activities in technologies like advanced communications, quantum technology, and artificial intelligence. This would put the alliance in the driver’s seat to set and formulate standards that will end up shaping the way future technologies might work.

The emerging technology working group by Quad is one of the few internal groupings within the alliance that can effect a positive impact in a faster duration of time. Free trade in critical technology areas, seamless technology transfer between the four countries and joint efforts in creating technical standards frameworks are all low hanging fruits that the group can use to its leverage. All the member states of Quad must leverage their technological prowess in stitching together a tight-knit multilateral technology alliance. This would effectively put Quad as a force to be reckoned with in the technology sphere.

Arjun Gargeyas is a researcher with the High Tech Geopolitics programme at the Takshashila Institution

The views expressed are personal