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Opinion: Can India turn Quad into an instrument to realise its significant potential as technological power?

C. Raja Mohan writes: The US is eager to strengthen India’s technological capabilities for defence and security. Delhi needs to move quickly to create internal environment for such partnerships with Quad members.

Written by C. Raja Mohan |
Updated: May 24, 2022 9:04:53 am
India faces enduring threats to its territorial integrity from China. (Illustration: C R Sasikumar)

President Joe Biden’s decision to begin his first visit to Asia at a semiconductor facility in South Korea underlines the role of critical technologies in his Indo-Pacific strategy. Calling his visit to the Samsung plant an “auspicious start”, Biden noted that the chips produced at the plant “are the key to propelling us into the next era of humanity’s technological development — artificial intelligence, quantum technologies, 5G, and so very much more”.

Referring to the impact of Covid-19 and the Russian invasion of Ukraine on the global economy, Biden emphasised the importance of reorienting technology supply chains away from countries that don’t share common values. The way forward, according to Biden, is to procure “more of what we need from our allies and partners and bolster our supply chain resilience”.

For Prime Minister Narendra Modi — who is participating in today’s summit of the Quadrilateral Forum that brings together Delhi, Canberra, Tokyo, and Washington — this is a major opportunity to enhance India’s national technological capabilities that can be the source of robust security and economic policies.

But is Delhi ready to go beyond its cautious and incremental approach to the Quad? Can it turn the Quad into an instrument to realise India’s significant potential as a technological power? Can India join its Quad partners in drawing up new rules to govern critical technologies that are rapidly transforming the global economic order and international security politics?

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Reports from Tokyo say India will combine its space and maritime resources with those of the Quad partners to counter the growing problem of illegal and unregulated fishing in their vast exclusive economic zones. The possibilities for pooling India’s technological resources with its Quad partners to promote peace and prosperity across the Indo-Pacific are immense.

The question of peace today is not limited to Europe amid the war in Ukraine. The impact of the Ukraine war on the Asian economy and security is coming into sharp view in this week’s high-powered diplomacy in Asia. Although Biden is unlikely to mention Beijing by name, there is no question that China’s muscular assertiveness is the driving force behind the Administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy.

One of the main objectives of Biden’s visit is to demonstrate that the US can simultaneously handle the Russian aggression in Europe and the Chinese challenge in Asia.

While the Russian invasion of Ukraine is an urgent priority, the Biden Administration is insisting that China remains the more demanding and longer-term challenge for the US. In a counter-intuitive turn, the Ukraine crisis has improved US prospects in the Indo-Pacific. Xi Jinping’s all-out support for Vladimir Putin has not panned out well and has helped Washington rustle up support for its Indo-Pacific initiatives.

If many in the Indo-Pacific scoffed at the idea of a “rules-based order”, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has highlighted the first principles of such an order — respect for territorial integrity, peaceful resolution of disputes, and no violent change in national borders. For the first time since the Second World War, the Ukraine war has reversed the positions of the West and China on the question of territorial sovereignty so deeply valued by the Asian nations. It is the US and the West that are defending the sovereignty of states in Europe and Asia, while Russia and China are grabbing the territory of other states by force. As Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida affirmed, Russia’s Ukraine invasion “shakes the very foundation of the international order” and that such “unilateral attempts to alter the status quo cannot be tolerated anywhere in the world.”

India might not say this directly about Russia’s invasion, but it has underlined the principles of territorial sovereignty and peaceful resolution of disputes in its response to the war in Ukraine. After all, India faces enduring threats to its territorial integrity from China.

Fear of Ukraine-like military aggression by China against Taiwan and in the disputed islands of the Western Pacific has pushed Japan and South Korea to take bolder steps in building national defence capabilities, strengthening the alliance with the US, and taking a larger regional role. Greater technological collaboration between the US and its northeast Asian allies is emerging as a major pillar of Indo-Pacific security. The US is also eager to strengthen India’s technological capabilities for defence and security. Techno-military cooperation figured prominently in the 2+2 dialogue of defence and foreign ministers last month in Washington and is expected to be an important part of the conversation between Biden and Modi.

These developments follow the pattern set by the AUKUS alliance, under which London and Washington plan to help Australia build nuclear-powered submarines and acquire other advanced military technologies.

The question of technology is also at the core of the new Indo Pacific Economic Framework launched in Tokyo on Monday. The IPEF visualises cooperation across the region on fair trade, digital commerce, resilient supply chains, and clean energy among other issues. Progress on many of these fronts depends on technological collaboration between like-minded partners. For India, which is not part of any region-wide trade agreement, the IPEF opens the door for economic reengagement with Asia. IPEF offers a very different setting than the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) that binds 15 Asian nations in a trade liberalisation agreement. India had walked out of the RCEP, just before it was finalised in November 2019, citing the economic threat from China as the main reason. While India might have reservations, Delhi has been right in deciding to join the consultations on IPEF.

If the IPEF is about recasting the techno-economic relations of Asia and the AUKUS is a techno-military alliance, the Quad has become the vehicle to shape the techno-politics of the Indo-Pacific. The Tokyo summit will review the range of decisions taken at last year’s Washington conclave on advancing technological collaboration in a wide range of areas. These include vaccine production, clean energy, biotechnology, cybersecurity, and outer space to name a few. While the ambition is impressive, the Quad needs to demonstrate effective implementation and tangible benefits to the Indo-Pacific states.

In the end, the Quad’s technopolitik is about boosting the national capabilities of its members. In his remarks at the South Korean semiconductor plant, Biden pointed out that Samsung is only one of the three companies in the world making advanced chips. He thanked Samsung for deciding to invest $17 billion to build a similar semiconductor plant in Texas.

Biden also underlined his Administration’s efforts to revitalise the US semiconductor industry that once dominated the world. He also pointed to the plans to significantly raise research and development funding in the US. The idea is to facilitate technological innovation at home and build resilient supply chains with trusted partners to cope with multiple domestic and global challenges at hand.

This is an even more urgent strategic imperative for India’s security and economic policies. Delhi needs to move quickly and boldly to create the right internal environment for technological leapfrogging and seize the emerging external opportunities for deeper technological partnerships with the US and the Quad.

The writer is Senior Fellow, Asia Society Policy Institute, Delhi and a contributing editor on international affairs for The Indian Express

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