As the US formally declares Joe Biden as the next president, one important legacy from Donald Trump is likely to endure. It is the proposition that “like-minded countries” must come together to cope with emerging global challenges, including the governance of emerging technologies that are reshaping relations within and among societies. India traditionally relied on multilateral approaches to govern advanced technologies or chose isolation when the rules did not suit it. The time is now ripe for Delhi to consider coalition-building as a major tool of its tech-diplomacy.
The discourse on technological coalitions is not taking place in a political vacuum, but amidst the growing apprehensions about China’s use of newly acquired technological muscle in support of its expansionist aims. Technology issues are now quite central to the current contestation between the US and China. Reducing economic and, especially, digital dependence on China has also become an important objective for India, as Delhi navigates the deeply troubled relationship with Beijing.
India has figured quite prominently in the US and Western discourse on building new coalitions to promote and regulate advanced technologies. The size of India’s market as well as its technological capabilities make it an attractive partner in the effort to build “technology coalitions of the capable and willing”.
Delhi, which was getting drawn into these conversations with Washington during the Trump term, must now get ready to engage the incoming Biden administration. But is the Biden team interested? On the face of it, the differences between Trump and Biden are real. Trump’s coalition-building was rooted in scepticism about the efficacy of multilateral institutions like the World Trade Organisation and World Health Organisation in dealing with a rising China. Restoring multilateralism, on the other hand, is among Biden’s top priorities.
This difference is likely to be less important when we look at Washington’s longer-term record. The US has worked with multiple formats to achieve its technological objectives. In the nuclear arena, for example, the US negotiated arms control agreements with its main rival, the Soviet Union, during the Cold War. At the same time, Washington worked in multilateral forums to produce the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and exclusive groupings like the Nuclear Suppliers Group to regulate the flows of civil nuclear technology. In other words, the form depends on the function.
Even as he trashed traditional alliances like the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, Trump devoted much energy to the consolidation of the Quad, or Quadrilateral Security Framework, that brought Australia, India, Japan and the US together. Trump also sought to develop the idea of a “Quad Plus” that brought additional countries ranging from Brazil to South Korea and Vietnam and Israel to New Zealand to discuss the coordination of national responses to the pandemic. This included the idea of developing trusted global supply chains that are not vulnerable to Beijing’s weaponisation of economic interdependence.
Trump actively mobilised US allies and partners to shun China’s telecom companies in the rollout of 5G or “fifth-generation” wireless technology and promoted the idea of a coalition of “clean networks” that would shun harmful software and apps from China. Trump expanded the ambit of the Anglo-American intelligence-sharing alliance called Five Eyes (US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand) by initiating consultation with Japan and India on addressing the tension between encryption, privacy and law enforcement.
Biden has promised to reverse Trump’s decision to walk out of the 2015 Paris Accord on climate change on his first day at the White House. If global warming demands a collective approach, there are areas which demand a different framework. Biden has promised to rebuild alliances and partnerships with like-minded countries in addressing the threats from China. This is where we might see some overlap between the strategies of Trump and Biden.
Trump, for example, had invited India, Australia and South Korea to the G-7 summit that was to be held in the US this year, before the pandemic compelled its postponement. The members of the Group of Seven are the US, Canada, United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy and Japan. Biden’s plans for the G-7 summit are yet to be announced. Biden also promised to convene a “Democracy Summit” early on in his tenure that would deal with multiple objectives, including the promotion of human rights and protection of democracies from new digital technologies.
Meanwhile, Britain has been discussing the merits of a “Democracy Ten” that brings India, South Korea and Australia with the G-7 to build telecom products to reduce the current global reliance on China. The US strategic community is debating variations on the idea of an alliance between techno-democracies — or plural societies with strong technological capabilities.
After Biden’s election, the European Union has offered to rebuild the transatlantic alliance with a special focus on technological cooperation. Amidst the growing recognition of the danger of China-led global regimes on technology, Brussels has offered what has been described as a once-in-a-generation opportunity to transform the relationship between Europe and America. Earlier this year, France and Canada launched the Global Partnership on Artificial Intelligence to promote responsible development and use of AI. India was among the 15 founding members.
There are other initiatives that India is not yet part of — for example, the group called the “Digital Nations” that was founded in 2014 by Britain, Estonia, Israel, South Korea and New Zealand. The group wants to mobilise digital technologies to enhance the quality of life for their citizens.
India is also not part of the “Artemis Accords” that were launched in October by the Trump administration. These agreements outline a set of principles for the cooperative and transparent exploration of outer space. It is based on the recognition that the structure of space activities is undergoing profound transformation and the Outer Space Treaty negotiated in 1967 and the Moon Treaty of 1979 need to be supplemented. The founding members of the Artemis Accords are Australia, Canada, Italy, Japan, Luxembourg, United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom, and the US.
Delhi needs to appreciate the value of issue-based coalitions in producing more productive outcomes in the technological arena. Such coalitions will complement India’s traditional focus on multilateralism. In the last few years, India has taken the lead in promoting the International Solar Alliance and the Coalition for Disaster Resilient Infrastructure. India is also now a member of the Wassenaar Arrangement that regulates the flow of dual-use technologies and the Missile Technology Control Regime.
The scope of technology governance is expanding rapidly. In the digital domain alone, the emerging issues include cyber-security, right to privacy, integrity of political processes, content moderation on social media, preventing tech monopolies, digital trade and taxation, trans-border data flows and robotic weapons. There are no agreed answers within or among democracies on these difficult issues. New digital rules will emerge out of consultation and cooperation among like-minded countries. At this fluid digital moment, Delhi can secure its economic, political and security interests through active participation in the new technology coalitions.
This article first appeared in the print edition on December 15, 2020 under the title ‘India and a new tech order’. The writer is director, Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore and contributing editor on international affairs for The Indian Express