India’s debut in tech geopolitics

October 20, 2021 12:53 PM

The focus on emerging technologies was a common strand that ran through the Modi-Biden and the Quad summits as well as PM’s interaction with leading American CEOs.

modi in USIn the India-US joint statement after the bilateral meeting of the leaders, both countries resolved to cooperate in key technologies that “define innovation processes”. (Photo source: Twitter/@MEAIndia)

By Ambuj Sahu, 

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s four-day visit to the United States (September 22-25) was significant from a technology-centric perspective. The focus on emerging technologies was a common strand that ran through the Modi-Biden and the Quad summits as well as PM’s interaction with leading American CEOs.

The Quad leaders declared a set of Principles on Technology Design, Development, Governance, and Use. The summit also launched new initiatives in semiconductor, 5G, cyber security, space, and biotechnology. This suggests the overriding significance that the Quad partners accord to working together for technological capability development, which has an inherent national security dimension.

In the India-US joint statement after the bilateral meeting of the leaders, both countries resolved to cooperate in key technologies that “define innovation processes”. They also agreed to build stronger linkages in the private sector in critical areas like pharmaceuticals, semiconductors, biotechnology, and IT.

To seek private sector investments, PM Modi met the CEOs of Blackstone, Adobe, Qualcomm, First Solar, and General Atomics. Barring the financial giant Blackstone, four of them are established players in software, semiconductor electronics, solar energy, and defence technologies respectively.

It is evident from these developments that India is looking at leveraging its massive digital market to shape the technological agenda globally. It is also seeking greater private sector and government-to-government engagement to reduce import dependence on China for critical technologies. This is in line with the national technology policies.

India will emerge as a massive consumer of emerging technologies by the next decade. By 2025, it will have over 900 million internet users with electronics demand rising to worth $400 billion. Its energy demand is expected to be worth $8.6 trillion in 2040, a growth which is faster than any country in the world. Such scale of technology consumption warrants India to be an active stakeholder and shaper of the technological agenda globally.

During the Summit, the Quad countries decided to form Technical Standards Contact Groups to oversee standards-related activities on artificial intelligence and advanced communications. They also decided to launch the Semiconductor Supply Chain Initiative and facilitate cooperation on 5G diversification and deployment. The leaders have now agreed to form working groups for cyber security and space cooperation, and to keep an eye on new research trends in biotechnology.

Successful implementation of Quad’s initiatives can address many of India’s domestic goals across different technologies. For instance, India needs to build its digital infrastructure for optimal utilization of 5G technologies. Despite foreseeing a rising electronics demand, India remains a net importer in semiconductors and seeks integration in the global value chain. It also remains significantly vulnerable to cyber threats. As a leading space power, India also carries weight to shape international norms for peaceful uses of outer space.

Through PM Modi’s business interactions in the United States, India has demonstrated its intent to build capacity in industries with strategic significance; particularly, infrastructure, semiconductors, digital connectivity, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), and solar panels. The official press releases of the Prime Minister’s meeting with the four tech-company CEOs alluded to national initiatives in respective sectors, indicating synergy between India’s domestic and foreign policies.

Qualcomm has been invited to invest in domestic semiconductor manufacturing as per recently launched Production Linked Incentive (PLI) and Electronics System Design & Manufacturing (ESDM) schemes. The National Electronics Policy 2019 mentions semiconductor imports as a severe pressure point for the country’s forex reserves, and needs to be addressed.

PM’s interaction with General Atomics, a manufacturer of armed drones, followed by the India-US bilateral announcement of jointly developing air-launched UAVs will be instrumental in developing drone capabilities, a significant component in future warfare.His interaction with Adobe CEO involved discussions on Digital India for social welfare while the renewable energy firm First Solar expressed interests in setting up manufacturing facilities in India under the PLI. Setting up solar infrastructure is crucial for India to meet the target of generating 450 GW of renewable energy by 2030.

Notably, India has a very high import dependence on China in the above-mentioned sectors, i.e., semiconductors (71% of domestic market share, including Hong Kong), smartphones (45%), telecom (75%), and solar/photovoltaic cells (90%). Diversified investments and technology transfers in these sectors will help India counter the potential of Chinese economic coercion.

India is a ‘latent’ technological power because it shapes global innovation processes through its influential diaspora in Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics (STEM). Its role in the geopolitics of technology, though imperceptible, is decisive. The developments during PM Modi’s visit to the United States illustrate that India’s technological modernization will become one of the focus areas of India’s foreign policy. When India builds domestic capacity in emerging technologies, it will gradually come to influence the global geopolitics of technology.

(The author is a Research Associate at the Delhi Policy Group and is an alumnus from IIT, Delhi. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online.)

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