Updated: December 14, 2021 9:23:37 am
When Delhi thinks of technological cooperation with major powers, the US, Europe and Japan come to mind. Russia lags behind its Western cousins in civilian technologies but remains a major force in defence technologies. China has risen to the top ranks of technological powers, but President Xi Jinping’s expansionist policies have put Beijing at odds with not only the West but also India.
The missing link in India’s technological mind space, however, is the United Kingdom. This is surprising since Britain was the first nation to industrialise and has a long tradition of scientific research and technological development. With top-ranking universities and the golden triangle of science and innovation — London, Oxford and Cambridge — Britain is one of the world’s top technology powers. Britain is ranked third — just after China and ahead of Russia — in the world’s cyber power index put out by Harvard University’s Belfer Centre in 2020. India brings up the rear at number 21. This year, the World Intellectual Property Organisation ranked Britain fourth in the global innovation index; India is far behind at the 46th position. India, then, could gain in a technology partnership with Britain.
Meanwhile, post-Brexit Britain is looking for solid international partners to retain its position at the top of the global order. As a result, stronger ties with India have become a major political priority for London under Boris Johnson’s government. Britain’s ties with India have never looked as promising as today. But the popular narrative on bilateral relations remains mired in the past. Delhi’s foreign policy community can’t shake off the Pakistan prism in viewing London. To be sure, London’s advocacy of Pakistan has always irritated Delhi. Meanwhile, the Indian political class revels in bashing Britain.
Reflecting an India that has grown out of its colonial blues, the Narendra Modi government is far more self-assured in dealing with Britain as an equal rather than a former ruler. India, after all, is well set to overtake Britain in aggregate GDP rankings in a year or two. IMF projections for 2021 put India’s nominal GDP at $2.9 trillion and that of Britain at $3.1 trillion. Instead of whining about London’s South Asian policy, Delhi now simply ignores London’s claims for a special role in India’s political disputes with Pakistan. At the same time, Delhi recognises the enormous strategic possibilities with Britain and is willing to invest political capital to build on those synergies.
By focusing on the positive, Delhi is betting it can reduce the traditional negative elements in the engagement with the UK. Given its diplomatic success in getting the US, Saudi Arabia and the UAE to put “India first” in their South Asia policies, Delhi is confident that the UK can be turned around too. Meanwhile, the steady relative decline of Pakistan — its economy is now about a tenth of India’s — and Delhi’s deepening strategic partnership with Washington are also encouraging London to rethink its past approach to the Subcontinent.
Unlike late prime minister Inder Kumar Gujral, who had called Britain a “third rate power”, the Modi government is fully conscious of its enduring global salience. External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar has often highlighted Britain’s continuing weight in the world as the fifth-largest economy, a permanent member of the UN Security Council, a major financial centre, and a leading hub of higher education and technology. Britain also enjoys a global maritime reach and a measure of political influence across the world.
While a trade agreement between Delhi and London is said to be imminent, it is in the technological domain that the prospects are immense but under-explored. Some of those possibilities for partnership with India will be highlighted this week when Prime Minister Johnson addresses Carnegie India’s Global Technology Summit convened annually in partnership with the Ministry of External Affairs.
While policymakers around the world have been talking endlessly about the massive implications of the unfolding technological revolution, only a few nations have laid out ambitious policy goals in harnessing it. The UK is one of them, but there is insufficient awareness in India’s strategic community of the British moves to put science and technology at the very heart of its political, economic, security and foreign policies. London announced a raft of measures this year starting with a major report on “Global Britain in a Competitive Age: An Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development, and Foreign Policy”. It was followed by a series of other reports on defence, S&T policy, outer space strategy, and an artificial intelligence strategy. It is expected to announce a new cyber strategy in 2022.
Eight broad themes stand out from these initiatives. First, leverage technology to “level up” the regional and social inequalities in Britain. Two, ensure Britain’s privileged position as a leading science power. Third, focus on technological innovation to drive Britain’s future economic growth. Fourth, build internal security resilience against new technological threats. Fifth, modernise the intelligence apparatus with the help of new technologies. Sixth, integrate technology into the national defence strategy as new capabilities like AI become as consequential as battle-tanks, ships and fighter jets. Seventh, project technological power to counter malevolent actors in the international system.
Finally, London wants to build a coalition of like-minded countries to reshape the global governance of technology. This includes strengthening technological ties with the traditionally close partners in the Anglosphere — US, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand — as well as other partners like Japan and India.
All these elements in British policy mesh with India’s own economic, political, and security interests. The British technology initiatives are also aligned with the technological agenda of the Quad — or the Quadrilateral forum that brings together Australia, India, Japan, and the US.
For Delhi, the essence of the new alliance with Britain is fourfold — generate domestic prosperity, enhance national security, climb up the global technology hierarchy, and contribute to the construction of a free, open, and democratic global technological order.
This column first appeared in the print edition on December 14, 2021 under the title ‘Delhi to London’. The writer is director, Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore and contributing editor on international affairs for The Indian Express.
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