Remarks by Dr Samir Saran at the Opening Plenary session of the BRICS Academic Forum 2022
It is a pleasure to be back again and be a part of the academic forum that has continued to raise important issues for intra BRICS cooperation and indeed, for the challenges that confront our world.
We are meeting today at an important moment—a moment that will be recorded and studied by future generations. It is important that all of us rise to the challenges that confront us and be creative in discovering solutions. Three major trends are seeking our attention and indeed, resolution.
First, global politics has been upended by the political actions in Asia and Europe. Conflicts, contests, and careless power projection have jeopardised stability, peace, and prosperity for all. Can we discover a new geostrategic balance and what role can BRICS play?
As we emerge from the pandemic—or at least begin to learn to live with it—what are the lessons that we have learnt? Will new development and growth models emerge, and will BRICS and other actors invest in what is most important for humankind?
And finally, we are experiencing the digitalisation of everything. Technology is having an impact on our economy, our politics, our societies, and indeed our individual behaviours, choices, and assessments of the world we live in.
New Politics, Green and Inclusive Growth, and our Common Digital Future beckons us. At the Indian presidency of the BRICS last year, we coined three words—Continuity, Consolidation, and Consensus. These remain relevant even as China steers the group and must continue to define the BRICS agenda.
We have to work together to overcome the contested politics of today. We must be contributors to stability in world affairs. We should reject actions as a group and as individual nations that can create further instability or exacerbate current tensions.
BRICS was always meant to be a grouping that would offer an alternative path to one prescribed by the Atlantic Order. We must continue to strive to do this. Unipolarity must give way to multipolarity. Bipolarity is not an option.
Three key elements will shape the path that BRICS and others must pave.
First, as the political assumptions of the 20th century may no longer be sufficient or valid for a more complex world, we must work together to script a multilateralism that is fit for purpose. It must reflect current realities, the aspirations of different geographies, and a governance structure that is plural, transparent, and accessible. The old hegemony of the Atlantic Order must not be replaced by a new hegemony from another region.
BRICS must continue—individually and collectively—to remain inclusive in shaping the multilateral system. This system must deliver on economic and trade growth. It must find new ways of catalysing financial flows for infrastructure and aspirational needs of multiple geographies. Multilateralism for this century will require new anchors and champions. BRICS can play that role, provided all members are committed to it.
Second, future growth and our economic needs will have to cater to our planetary responsibility. Green transitions must not simply be a buzzword, but the policy design for all. BRICS must work—both within and with others—to put together a template to invest toward a green planet. We have to rethink mobility, urban spaces, consumption, and our lifestyles. We must also work to protect those who are already being burdened by the deleterious consequences of global warming, rising sea levels, and harsh weather conditions.
Thirdly, we have to embrace technology and not allow it to become the new arena for zero-sum politics. The world must see technology as a digital public good and it must serve all of humanity equitably. The rules for this digital future are yet to be written. These rules must not be written only by the western hemisphere. In the absence of such agreed rules, sovereign arrangements must prevail over those written by the boardrooms. BRICS can share experiences and learnings from our individual journeys and offer to the world examples and methods of managing our common digital future. We must ensure that countries, within and outside, do not weaponise technology or game the digital public square.
It is impossible for BRICS to attain its full potential and contribute to global affairs unless each member is committed to the BRICS project and the thinking that led to its creation—peaceful co-existence, within the group and with others, being the primary ethos.
In the sixth edition of our flagship annual journal of essays, the Raisina Files, we seek to take stock of where we are as people, communities, and countries. We intend to discuss and clarify responses to challenges that have arisen due to the pandemic, and discover and chart pathways to opportunities in the post-COVID19 world. Our contributors engage with the new war in Europe, and its consequences for the region and the world. Most importantly, the fine minds who have penned the essays that follow, seek to describe what lies ahead, how it will be arranged, who will shape it, and who will likely benefit from what unfolds.
Raisina Files 2022 mirrors the theme of this year’s Raisina Dialogue, “Terra Nova: Impassioned, Impatient, and Imperilled.” We have identified six pillars and areas of discussion within this overarching theme to engage with critically—Rethinking Democracy: Trade, Tech, and Ideology; End of Multilateralism: A Networked Global Order?; Water Caucuses: Turbulent Tides in the Indo-Pacific; Communities Inc.: First Responders to Health, Development, and Planet; Achieving Green Transitions: Common Imperative, Diverging Realities; and Samson vs Goliath: The Persistent and Relentless Tech Wars. Together, these six pillars of the Raisina Dialogue capture the multitude of conversations, opportunities, and anxieties countries engage and grapple with.
In this volume:
Editors: Samir Saran and Anahita Khanna
The DragonBear: Putin’s Choices | Velina Tchakarova
Forging China-Resistant Supplier Compacts | Jeffrey Jeb Nadaner
Democracy, Technology, Geopolitics | Sameer Patil and Vivek Mishra
Materials That Matter | Andreas Kuehn
Scripting a Third Way: The Importance of EU-India Partnership | Amrita Narlikar
Emerging Domains of Conflict in the 21st Century| Lydia Kostopoulos
Advancing Trade Governance – Only for Democracies? | Renato G. Flôres Jr.
The World in Disarray: Is This the End of Multilateralism for Trade? | Stormy-Annika Mildner
Anticipate, Reform, and Elevate: Looking Toward W20 India 2023 | Erin Watson-Lynn
The Pandemic at 24 Months | Sridhar Venkatapuram
The Season of Caucuses: QUAD, AUKUS, and the Exclusive-Inclusive Duality of Indo-Pacific Asia | Rory Medcalf
Oceanic Choices: India, Japan, and the Dragon’s Fire: How does the QUAD Work? | Satoru Nagao
Diverging US and Indian Approaches to Europe: The Problem of Ukraine | S. Paul Kapur
India’s Unicorn Step-Function Growth Signals the Emergence of its Innovation Ecosystem | Nisha Holla
Exploring the Inequities of Climate Finance | Mannat Jaspal and Terri B. Chapman
Enabling the Green Transition to be a Just Transition | Nuvodita Singh and Akshima Ghate
Meta-Soft Power: Flipping the Scales Between Art & Culture | Nicolò Andreula and Stefania Petruzzelli
Our text of ancient fables, the Panchatantra, speaks of “natural allies”. If there are ever natural allies in politics, the European Union (EU) and India should exemplify this relationship. Our cultural exchanges date back to ancient times; our languages have common roots; our borders are closer than ever via a human bridge that connects us: There are millions of Indians in the Middle East, and millions from the Middle East in Europe. Europe and India are a geographical continuum. And both the EU and India— “the world’s largest democracies”—face shared threats and challenges. All roads must now connect Delhi and Brussels.
Here, we lay out a map to address three key challenges: The green transition, the digital transformation, and the preservation of our shared geopolitical landscape. On all three issues, direct and close cooperation between the EU and India will not only be vital for these two major powers and their people—but also for the world at large.
To address climate change, the EU and its members have been upping their domestic game. The European Green Deal is only one amongst several key initiatives that illustrate the seriousness with which the EU is addressing the existential threat of climate change. At the same time, there is much angst in Europe that these efforts will not suffice unless they are matched by China and India. While the concerns are understandable, a narrative framed in terms of “what will become of the world if every Indian has a car” is patronising and misplaced, especially when one compares the per capita fossil consumption in India to the EU members. In any case, specifically with respect to India, the EU is pushing through an open door on the issue of addressing climate change. India has led the way in international initiatives on the issue of clean energy, for instance, by creating the International Solar Alliance with France. India’s commitment to protecting the environment, moreover, does not stem from recent pressure exercised by Greta Thunberg or Fridays for Future. Contra western anthropocentrism in which activists advocate climate change mitigation for “our children’s future”, Indian philosophy teaches us that the planet belongs to humans, plants, animals, and all living beings. There are, therefore, deep-rooted and inclusive reasons for Indians to be committed to protecting the planet. This commitment should not be doubted. Instead, the EU needs to find ways to invest in this Indian cause and co-create solutions for our common future.
The European Green Deal is only one amongst several key initiatives that illustrate the seriousness with which the EU is addressing the existential threat of climate change.
To achieve this, we need actions and not words. It has taken a full-blown war in the heart of Europe for Germany to recognise the risks of over-dependence on Russia for energy purposes; diversification is proving to be far slower and more complicated than many would like. In light of this experience, it is perhaps even more unreasonable than before to demand that India “phase out” coal at the click of a finger. The EU will have to put its money where its mouth is if it is serious about addressing the global problem of climate change. The Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism, for example, should be more than a “poverty tax”, as it is seen in India; it should be a tool to finance and incentivise the green transition in globally integrated sectors in the emerging world. Technologies vital to low-carbon growth will need to be co-created and co-owned by Europe and partners like India. European capital must be given a nudge to flow into climate-conscious investment in the emerging world. It is up to the EU to make sure that India’s efforts pay off—through significant European financing in key sectors, via public-private partnerships.
The EU is leading the way in setting people-centred standards on digital governance via GDPR. India’s Aadhaar Card scheme has shown the pioneering role that digitalisation can play in empowering the poor and facilitating development. There are also already several worrying examples of the pernicious effects of digital technology: Surveillance of local populations by authoritarian states, as well as the manipulation and control of infrastructure and security systems by external actors. To preserve the individual liberties of their people, and strengthen digital sovereignty, European and Indian cooperation will be key.
Research collaborations on dual-use technology, public-private partnerships for implementation and marketing of these innovations, and working jointly and through like-minded coalitions to establish rules for data governance and cyber-security are essential.
These two democratic powers will also be well-served to collaborate on diversifying away from their dependence on China, for e.g., on 5G technology and infrastructure development. Any trade agreement between the EU and India should prioritise this key consideration. Research collaborations on dual-use technology, public-private partnerships for implementation and marketing of these innovations, and working jointly and through like-minded coalitions to establish rules for data governance and cyber-security are essential. Neither the EU nor India can get left behind in a game that is dominated by the boardrooms in the US and party headquarters in China. India and the EU need to enter into a technology partnership that allows for all of this, and for ensuring reliable and integrated supply chains.
Shared geopolitical landscape
Our shared geopolitical landscape—extending beyond geographical proximities and including the Indo-Pacific—has been under extreme stress in recent years. The EU has a war triggered by Russia on its borders; India and its neighbours have had to put up with Chinese adventurism on the Himalayas and in their maritime neighbourhood.
Research collaborations on dual-use technology, public-private partnerships for implementation and marketing of these innovations, and working jointly and through like-minded coalitions to establish rules for data governance and cyber-security are essential.
This is a time for both the EU and India to be working together to help restore balance in the region. The EU will need to jump off the fence with respect to China; the European mantra of “partner, competitor, rival” is highly inadequate in dealing with a China that has signed a “no-limits” partnership with Russia. India will also need to rethink its own dependencies. The two democracies have now very real incentives to develop closer economic and military ties.
Sanctimonious lectures about morality will need to be replaced by a shared empathy of the like-minded. And all this will require the use of not only Europe’s favourite tool of “soft power”, but also the use of hard power through infrastructure projects, green investment, and military cooperation. Re-aligning their economic and security cooperation with each other will enable both the EU and India to stand up for the values that they both hold dear: Democracy and pluralism.
Three contemporary developments have challenged India’s engagement with the world and its security concerns in the past 24 months. The first was the decision by China’s Xi Jinping to pick a line from a map in imagined history and send 100,000 troops and more to alter the current political equation in the Himalayas. This was a whimsical and perverse exertion of power that resulted in a bloody clash and a still continuing face-off between Indian and Chinese troops. Xi’s actions then were no different from Vladimir Putin’s in recent days, both yearning for the expanse of empires past or even mythical. The global reaction, though ostensibly sympathetic to India, was timid when compared to the current aggressive response to a similar Russian effort to change the politics of Europe.
Continuing economic engagement with China and appeasement of the Dragon to the detriment of its partners and allies defined the western world’s response. The differential between geopolitics in Europe and geopolitics in Asia has been underscored again in stark terms. The frenzied media coverage and careless commentary continue to reinforce how values and ethics vary when ethnicity and geography change. This must affect the assessments of the West’s partners in the East.
Next, in August 2021, the world’s mightiest superpower, the United States (US), finalised an unethical and tragic arrangement with a band of terrorists, and deserted Afghanistan overnight. Women rights, individual freedoms and the “values” that were propagated while waging the so-called liberal war against terror, were all discarded in favour of what was expedient. The professors of democracy and the radical Taliban found common cause and sent Afghanistan back to the 1990s. For India, terrorists armed with American weaponry were no longer just a threat scenario but a reality at its door — one it would have to handle by itself.
The differential between geopolitics in Europe and geopolitics in Asia has been underscored again in stark terms. The frenzied media coverage and careless commentary continue to reinforce how values and ethics vary when ethnicity and geography change.
And now, Putin has decided to go one up on Joe Biden and take Europe back to the early 20th century. Russian troops invaded a sovereign country to enforce a political writ driven solely by the desire to preserve Russia’s influence over geographies that increasingly disagree with the politics and propositions of the Kremlin. While Russia’s fears of the purpose and method of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)’s expansion must not be discounted, use of force and violation of a country’s sovereignty cannot be acceptable as an expression of disagreement.
The invasion of Ukraine has put India in an unenviable position of choosing between what is right and what it believes is right for itself. India’s tough words on Russian action in its statement at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), even as it abstained from voting, demonstrated this. Yet this is insufficient for many in the liberal West who seek India to be part of the normative liberal order, as well as of a performative chorus against Russia.
The invasion of Ukraine has put India in an unenviable position of choosing between what is right and what it believes is right for itself.
What is more striking than India’s predictable vote is the mood on the street and views of the commentariat. It seems that the memories of the feeble support on China and the shenanigans in Afghanistan are still fresh.
The US invasion of Iraq in 2003 had triggered loud political debates and voices against India’s then position on American intervention. This time, the convergence across the normally sharp political divide is palpable and must be a moment for reflection for many.
Several questions confront New Delhi. First, does strategic autonomy equal neutrality, or is it the freedom to choose what is best for the country at any given time? Can we disregard growing strategic expectations from partners? What are the dependencies that are being created by our economic and security choices? Which of them are inimical to our interests? And, how can we integrate this aspect as we make choices in a multi-layered world?
Finally, there is a question for the trans-Atlantic order. Its tough line on Russia’s military adventurism, gaming of economic relations, and cyber and information operations have been compelling. Will it hold this line when it comes to China’s actions? Or will the happenings in Asia continue to be appraised through a “dollar”- driven values framework?
Trusted connectivity, diversified sources of materials and components and resilient financial and trading arrangements are no longer buzzwords but a strategic imperative requiring all of India’s consensus, including within its business community, lawmakers and all stakeholders.
But the single most important learning through the pandemic years and the three geopolitical developments that have created turbulence for India is the burial of the post-war assumptions of the century past that undergirded our modern societies and indeed the global project that was born around the same time as India’s Independence.
Between China, the US and now Russia, we have witnessed the weaponisation of everything. Innocuous supply chain components for electronics, minor supplements for medicines, components for vaccine packaging, energy and gas grids, SWIFT system and currency and minerals and sundry materials have all been used for political coercion, waging war, or for undermining others’ interests.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s call for Aatmanirbharta (self-reliance) has acquired a new salience and ironically, achieving it requires astute global interlinkages and perhaps even more dense global networks for a country that houses a sixth of humanity. Trusted connectivity, diversified sources of materials and components and resilient financial and trading arrangements are no longer buzzwords but a strategic imperative requiring all of India’s consensus, including within its business community, lawmakers and all stakeholders.
Time to reassess what is good, what is bad, and what is ugly about India’s tech regulation Three sets of issues emerge here – understanding the nature of technology-linked risks, assessing the challenges to governance, and being imaginative in embracing new modes of regulation.
The emergence of new technologies has digitalised markets, societies and nations. Once perceived as a strength, this proliferation of technology is now also a vulnerability. It has made tech-governance more political and social, and less about the traditional modes of regulation such as permissions, standards and tariffs.
India is among the most technology adept nations, a function of its people’s comfort with IT products and services as well as its late-mover advantage. It must now engage with a spectrum of evolving needs around law and regulation. This is necessary to accelerate population-scale opportunities and address widespread risks.
Three sets of issues emerge here – understanding the nature of technology-linked risks; assessing the challenges to governance; and being imaginative in embracing new modes of regulation.
Three sets of issues emerge here – understanding the nature of technology-linked risks, assessing the challenges to governance, and being imaginative in embracing new modes of regulation.
Improved access is credited with enabling financial inclusion, efficiency in education and healthcare, and fostering local e-commerce as well as global trade. However, a large user base is also a double-edged sword. As a result, corrective interventions need to be nimble and at digital velocity and population scale. Legacy regulation is simply ineffective.
This is best illustrated by problems plaguing social media platforms. A 2021 study found a high rate of social media misinformation in India, and attributed this in part to the country’s higher Internet penetration rate, driven by smart phones. Between June-July 2021 alone, Facebook received 1,504 user complaints in India – with a significant proportion of these related to bullying, harassment or sexually inappropriate content. Concerns are also emerging across other digital ecosystems, such as online gambling and crypto-assets. The mobile phone is a communication device, a crime scene and also an unsafe personal space.
Several state-level laws regulate or entirely prohibit betting and gambling. However, research suggests India is among the top five countries in terms of income potential from online gambling, and that the domestic online casino market may grow by 22 per cent each year. People from several states, such as Maharashtra, Telangana and Karnataka, are among the most frequent visitors to online gambling websites. The market for illegal betting and gambling in India is highly lucrative, with some estimating its value at USD 150 billion.
Offshore gambling websites often channel black money, engage in illicit transactions and launder wealth through financial intermediaries. Their operators are invariably based outside India, which makes it difficult to enforce the writ of the state. Recent investigations by bodies like the Enforcement Directorate have revealed instances of locals being hired to open bank accounts and trade through various online wallets, revealing gaps in due diligence mechanisms.
For the digital economy to flourish, it is important to evolve approaches that help resolve systemic and structural risks. It is time to reassess what is good, what is bad and what is ugly in this new digital landscape. Online gaming and online gambling must not be conflated. Similarly blockchain and sensible DeFi must not be clubbed with predatory crypto-gaming. After all, if we don’t embrace disruptive technology markets through sensible regulation, others will. A failure to capitalise may see India lose key avenues for economic growth and investment. India risk environment will then be shaped by external jurisdictions, some inimical to the country.
For instance, there are approximately 15 million crypto-asset investors in India, with total holdings of INR 400 billion. However, the regulatory and policy uncertainty has compelled crypto-asset entrepreneurs and exchanges to look to operate in more favourable markets. Exchanges such as Cryptokart, Koinex and ZebPay have exited the Indian market. ZebPay, for instance, is now headquartered in Singapore. In late 2021, many crypto-asset founders in India were considering moving their businesses to either the UAE or Singapore.
What we need today is new thinking and a new imagination of the digital world as not merely a virtual extension of the real, but an entirely different paradigm.
By banning cryptocurrencies altogether, nations such as China have missed the bus. India must leverage its position as the world’s third-fastest growing technology hub and seize the opportunity created by Beijing’s command and control ethos that is antithetical to innovation. India can and should become a global norms shaper in tech.
Tech regulation at population scale is akin to writing a new constitution for a digital nation. What we need today is new thinking and a new imagination of the digital world as not merely a virtual extension of the real, but an entirely different paradigm. There needs to be a clear-eyed understanding of what is legal, what is illegal and what may be illegal and yet requires regulations to serve and protect users and citizens.
To use a real-world analogy, since the 1990s, many countries including India have consistently distributed condoms and undertook safety campaigns among sex-workers without legalising prostitution or made available safe syringes to drug users without legalising the act. For governments and regulators, the role is no longer one of a gatekeeper that has the ability to prevent or permit activities online; it is becoming more of an ecosystem shaper and reducer of public bads.
By taxing cryptocurrency assets but not recognising these as legal tender, India has shown some welcome flexibility. It would do well to retain this nimbleness and become a co-curator of relatively safe tech platforms, services and products of the future that respond to Indian jurisdiction rather that off-shore the production of risks along with the rewards.
As the Russia-Ukraine conflict unfolds, Germany has finally undertaken epochal decisions to uphold the values of the international order by supporting Ukraine
The talk of values is not new to German foreign policy-makers. But the Russian invasion on Ukraine seems to have finally led Germany to walk the walk. The last week has been both frenzied and path-breaking in German politics.
On 22 February, Germany’s Chancellor, Olaf Scholz—a Social Democrat from Hamburg—called for a halt to Nord Stream 2, in response to Russian President, Vladimir Putin’s, provocations in Eastern Ukraine. This was dramatic at several levels: Germany’s energy dependence on Russia had tended to make some politicians—including Scholz’s predecessor, Angela Merkel (a Christian Democrat)—wary of pulling the plug on the pipeline project. Scholz deserves even more credit for having made this break with Germany’s Russia policy in the context of party politics: The Social Democrats had come under critique in the past for being too soft on Russia (Russlandversteher).
Germany’s difficult past had led it to ban the export of weapons to conflict-zones; in keeping with this practice, the country had blocked Estonia from sending arms to Ukraine last month.
Since the outbreak of war in Ukraine on 24 February, Olaf Scholz has taken three further remarkable steps. First, after some hesitation, he has agreed to the inclusion of a ban on SWIFT transactions with Russia. This is a strong and costly signal to send to Russia as it will also have financial implications for Germany. Second, Germany’s difficult past had led it to ban the export of weapons to conflict-zones; in keeping with this practice, the country had blocked Estonia from sending arms to Ukraine last month. Olaf Scholz engineered an unprecedented shift. In a stirring speech at a special session of the German Parliament on 27 February, Scholz stated that Germany, by supporting Ukraine, will stand on the side of Europe, democracy, and the “the right side of history”. Amongst the concrete measures he outlined, sending military supplies to Ukraine was key: “Russian invasion marks a turning point. It is our duty to support Ukraine to the best of our ability in defending against Putin’s invading army”. Germany will now be supplying anti-tank weapons and Stinger missiles to Ukraine. And third, just as significant is Germany’s announcement to increase its NATO defence spending, thereby signaling the emergence of Germany as a security actor.
In a country where deliberative democracy is exalted (sometimes to a point where it amounts to being a strategy to doing nothing or muddling through), and the burden of history is high, the swift turn towards taking greater responsibility through action cannot be underestimated. Scholz’s leadership has been critical to this development, though he is undoubtedly helped by his coalition partners in the Green Party, who have come to power on a platform of principles and values. Germany’s proactive role is invigorating for us to observe, and is perhaps also serving as a catalyst for the European Union: Witness the unprecedented decision by the EU to purchase weapons for Ukraine.
One could still take issue with the timing of all this: It would have indeed been better to signal such resolve to Putin before his attack on Ukraine, thereby, deterring war in the first place. But at a time when Germany seems to be finally walking the walk of values, it is time to not look behind, but fare forward.
Germany’s proactive role is invigorating for us to observe, and is perhaps also serving as a catalyst for the European Union: Witness the unprecedented decision by the EU to purchase weapons for Ukraine.
It is clear that Scholz has understood the importance of hard power, in a way that his predecessors had not. As a dedicated European, he also knows that the Putin’s aggression towards Ukraine is a threat to European security as a whole. The question remains though, will he be able to extend his gaze to the global stage, and exercise much-needed leadership there? Putin is not the only authoritarian with grand designs in his neighbourhood; President Xi has been displaying similar adventurism towards Taiwan. The Ukraine crisis has brought these two players even closer, thus far. Will Scholz be the Chancellor to break out of the European platitudes of “partner, competitor, and rival” and finally call out China, just the way he has with Russia? As Mayor of Hamburg, Scholz was able to successfully attract Chinese investment to his city. As the Chancellor of Germany, he now has the onerous task of building a governance architecture that will secure the continent—and like-minded, democratic partners—from Chinese expansionism.
In the third decade of the twenty-first century, democracies face a new adversary — technology. Technology was once seen as a force for good, which could bridge the gap between the state and restless streets. Today, owned and controlled by large enterprises and extra-territorial governments, that very technology sometimes undermines the foundations of democracy, where it functions as a public sphere and a vibrant information exchange.
Much of the world has blearily woken up to big tech’s ambitions, expansion and unaccountable power to shape the human condition. A few companies, dotted on America’s West Coast (henceforth referred to as big tech), now possess the ability to harness the digital gold rush — along with the equally overwhelming influence on discourse in democratic societies. In parallel, a rising China, with its rapid successes in building a vibrant technology ecosystem, has unleashed plans to dominate innovation, high technology and the global perceptions ecosystem (henceforth referred to as red tech).
Technology from the West Coast of the United States and technology that seeks to serve the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) have both chosen to pursue their defined objectives with little thought for constitutional systems and laws in third countries. As such, much of the democratic world is at risk of being caught in the vice-like grip of big tech and red tech. It is, therefore, time for democratic societies to discover and examine means to secure an open and free global technological ecosystem that serves all shades of democracy.
Technology from the West Coast of the United States and technology that seeks to serve the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) have both chosen to pursue their defined objectives with little thought for constitutional systems and laws in third countries.
Why the Battle for Tech Matters
The threat that big tech poses to democracy is multifaceted. First, major social media platforms — Twitter, Facebook, Google and others — curate, promote and curtail information received by and, indeed, even the opinions of citizens in democratic societies. This power over speech and expression, and therefore over our politics and polity, is unrivalled in history (Baer and Chin 2021). While US steel, big oil and big tobacco were brought to heel by domestic regulations and national governments, the transnational reach of big tech has made it much harder to circumscribe (Lago 2021).
Operating outside rules and regulations prescribed by sovereign constitutions, social media platforms now exercise a worrying level of influence without accountability. Big tech has deplatformed controversial political figures such as Donald Trump (Byers 2021); censored content, a decision that internal ombudsmen disagree with (Eidelman and Ruane 2021); and has encouraged an engagement-based content ranking system that has allowed everything from disinformation about coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) to hate speech to spread (Harris 2021). Platforms are free to decide whether they function as private hosting platforms or providers of a vital public utility; they cannot be both. Yet, they pick and choose between the two functions as it suits them.
National governments have not been asleep at the wheel. From New Delhi to Canberra, they have tabled regulations to rein in social media behemoths. In every instance, platform enterprises have chosen to obstruct, obfuscate and outmanoeuvre regulatory efforts (Clayton 2021). Left unregulated, our digital commons may become a noxious space that suffocates democracy, rather than being the promised breath of fresh air.
The future of democratic societies will also be decided by the contest with China in high technology. This competition runs deeper than China’s desire to build “national champions” that can outcompete the Googles and Apples of the world. To Beijing, China’s technology capabilities directly serve interests, ideologies and inclinations of the CCP (Tyagi 2021). Even as the Great Firewall of China allows the CCP monopoly control over ideas and over truth among its own citizens, China’s ever-increasing reach and economic expansion provides the party the ability to pervert and undermine the public sphere of other nations.
Platforms are free to decide whether they function as private hosting platforms or providers of a vital public utility; they cannot be both.
From harnessing artificial intelligence (AI) in the form of facial recognition technologies to vastly expand its citizen surveillance system (Davies 2021) to deploying those very capabilities against Uighur minorities in Xinjiang (Mozur 2019), the CCP will not shy away from deploying tech to reinforce strict authoritarian control at home. Overseas, “wolf warriors” (Martin 2021) insert themselves into every global debate of consequence and Chinese money power prevents Western media or social media from acting against such insidious and troubling participation that aggravates cleavages in other societies.
As China’s economic influence and technological capabilities have grown, it has sought to influence and manipulate global publics. China’s official media, governmental entities and diplomats have leveraged open platforms such as Twitter to peddle disinformation on the origins of COVID-19 (Associated Press 2021). China’s influence operations have also extended to election interference in Taiwan (Kurlantzick 2019), and they are increasingly inserting themselves in other countries as well. According to Freedom House, China has used its technological capabilities, in tandem with its economic and political power, to launch a massive influence operation that is gaming democracies from the inside out (Cook 2020).
Red tech is clearly an extension of the CCP’s global ambitions. For example, global standards bodies and multilateral organizations have been flooded with standards proposals by Chinese tech firms that would enshrine CCP values into the fundamental architecture of the internet (Gargeyas 2021). At the United Nations, Huawei and other Chinese state-owned enterprises have led advocacy for a “New IP” to replace the existing TCP/IP (Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol) structure of the internet (Gross and Murgia 2020). Industry analysts have expressed concern that this new structure, with inbuilt controls that would allow for vastly increased governmental interference, is fundamentally at odds with the open internet of today.
According to Freedom House, China has used its technological capabilities, in tandem with its economic and political power, to launch a massive influence operation that is gaming democracies from the inside out (Cook 2020).
The ascendance of Chinese standards and tech also worries global actors for other reasons. While the United States and the European Union have enabled the creation of penetrated and argumentative democracies — wherein all countries and civil society organizations can advocate for the regulation of big tech or the promulgation of General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) standards — China has no equivalent political structure. In fact, China’s intemperate wolf warrior diplomacy, which has precipitated clashes with Australia (Ryan 2020), Sweden (BBC News 2018) and France (Seibt 2021), among others, demonstrates that China has little tolerance for dissenting views or for reciprocal tolerance of criticism.
The Regulatory Void
Despite the high stakes and clear threat, regulation has failed to keep up. Major powers have not come to the fundamental realization that regulations must be both political and functional. Technology regulations driven by industry may have prized functionality, but both big tech’s subversion of regular constitutional processes and democratic debate as well as red tech’s brazen advancement of the CCP’s agenda demand regulation to recognize and return to its political roots.
Part of the reluctance to commit to a more political vision of regulation stems from overdependence on a China that dominates major global economies and the tech innovation ecosystem (Pletka and Scissors 2020). Given the massive size of the Chinese market, its capable and growing technology product and service lines, and Beijing’s willingness to use market access as leverage, many dither in enforcing regulations that exclude Chinese technology from specific sectors and functions. Others feel that government interference and politicization in regulatory matters could result in the fracturing of the global tech innovation ecosystem altogether (Schneider-Petsinger et al. 2019).
Technology regulations driven by industry may have prized functionality, but both big tech’s subversion of regular constitutional processes and democratic debate as well as red tech’s brazen advancement of the CCP’s agenda demand regulation to recognize and return to its political roots.
However, the return to more political regulation to oversee technology in the days ahead is inevitable. Simply, it is part of a well-established historical cycle. As Caetano Penna (2022) points out, every technological revolution has generated cycles of exuberance that leave contemporary social forces and political institutions in disarray. Only later does society mobilize to reshape institutions to suit a new era. Such regulation in service of societal goals has always been a key determinant in the evolution of industrialized societies. The spread of communication technologies in the boom from the 1980s to 2008 represented a cycle of exuberance. Today, however, technology possesses the power to fundamentally remake, disrupt and destabilize societies. AI-enabled machines threaten to put millions out of work and social media platforms, with a little Chinese help, have the potential to undermine democracies.
What Does a More Political Vision Look Like?
States, civil societies and general publics will have to take back control of the conversation over technology from tech companies. Part of this process will be nationally led and the rest multilateral. Domestic polities need to debate and hammer out a national consensus on some key issues, including on whether to enshrine privacy as a fundamental right. Assuming privacy is guaranteed, what level of privacy would suit their purposes? Who should own and have access to data? Who decides, and through what process, whether particular ideologies and groups should have access to the public commons?
In parts of the world where this debate is ongoing, robust data protection and privacy laws have been framed. While Canada now holds major tech platforms to the same transparency standards as traditional broadcasting groups (Solomun, Polataiko and Hayes 2021), Australia (Choudhury 2021) and India (Saran 2021) have adopted more stringent social media rules aimed at forcing big tech to comply with national-level regulations and directives on content. Nations would also have to debate the merits and benefits of the existing open internet model versus competing visions such as China’s New IP proposal. Each of these decisions would require clear choices by citizens who have, thus far, been excluded from conversations by governing elites and technology companies.
Domestic polities need to debate and hammer out a national consensus on some key issues, including on whether to enshrine privacy as a fundamental right.
At the multilateral level, bringing politics back into regulation will help safeguard data and democracies. An excellent example of political regulation is the European GDPR data architecture. Even firms outside the European Union that provide services to EU citizens find themselves subject to the European Union’s fundamentally political vision of privacy for its citizens (Nadeau 2020). The GDPR has also allowed for another political choice: flows of data will be free within the European Union but will be subject to protections upon leaving its borders.1 In effect, the European Union has erected a robust regime of protection that privileges countries that share a similar vision of privacy and data protection.
The European Union’s economic, political and normative leverage, popularized through the “Brussels effect,” has effectively forced other regimes to make way for it, with numerous countries enacting similar procedures. As such, the European experience in norms and standards setting is useful. Countries that share similar political visions of internet governance, disinformation and other aspects of technology policy can come together multilaterally to make the vision prevail globally. And disruptive players such as China, still new to the standards game, must make their peace with liberal democratic norms — or risk being left out in the cold.
Robert Fay suggests key digital powers come together to form a multilateral body, the Digital Stability Board (DSB), which would enact digital policy in much the same way that the Financial Stability Board helps design and monitor the implementation of key financial policies while assessing risks and vulnerabilities in the global financial system (Emanuele 2021). A DSB would lead discussion on regulating data value chains, countering misinformation and the development of cutting-edge technologies such as AI (ibid.). Given the transnational nature of the challenge posed by big tech’s dominance, a forum such as the DSB would be well suited to lay down the rules of the road on regulation and reining in major tech platforms.
Countries that share similar political visions of internet governance, disinformation and other aspects of technology policy can come together multilaterally to make the vision prevail globally.
While such a DSB would be useful to manage hostilities with powers such as China, another interesting proposal comes in the form of a group of 1o leading democracies, or D10. Proposed by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson (Fisher 2020), a D10 grouping would significantly source equipment for key technologies such as 5G from countries within the partnership. It could also develop a shared approach on key threats facing democracies, including countering disinformation, penalizing purveyors of influence operations such as China (or even Russia and other countries) and devising workable regulations for social media platforms that strike a balance between fighting fake news and preserving freedom of expression.
Ultimately, the introduction of the D10 to digital policy debates would signify a shared political vision, born out of democratic values, toward building the digital economy and regulating malcontents in the system. Good, old-fashioned democratic politics remains a primary driver even in the digital age. Wolves and wolf warriors hunt in packs; open societies need to respond with similar unity of purpose.
This piece builds on an intervention by Samir Saran at the Summit for Democracy on December 10, 2021.
If a weary international community—reeling from unanticipated challenges and unprecedented disruptions in the early 21st century—was looking forward to a stabilising start to the 2020s, its hopes were short-lived. COVID-19 continues to weave its way through borders and continents, felling victims and flummoxing governments. Two years down the line, it is increasingly clear that we have to learn to live with the virus, as it shows signs of transitioning to become endemic. A “new normal” where COVID-19 does not cripple communities, countries and whole continents is the future, even as vaccine inequity makes the possibility of more lethal variants imminent.
But even before COVID-19 forced us to radically rethink and redo the way we live our very lives, a certain tiredness had been evident. Generational and geographical shifts in the balance of power, rapid advances in technology-led innovations, and existential global risks like climate change have all strained the capacity of prevailing international norms and institutions. These have left them looking wilted, if not withered. Now, these norms and institutions have all but shattered from the strain of the pandemic. There is no percentage in stating the obvious, yet it must be reiterated: The international community needs new ideas, anchors and torchbearers to reinvigorate globalisation and strengthen global co-operation.
Towards this end, only asinine assessments of a future world order as the century turns 20 would ignore the crucial role of India in shaping this decade, and determining the trajectory of the decades to follow. Our endeavour with this series of essays is to capture the ideas and ethics driving contemporary Indian diplomacy; examine the methods and contours of India’s engagement with the world; and, offer a prognosis of India’s future as a leading power.
Under the rubric of ‘India@75: Aspirations, Ambitions, and Approaches’, ORF has curated 18 essays written by some of the world’s finest minds, representing former heads of state and government, members of parliament, heads of international institutions, leaders from business, and experts from academia and media. Between them, they have studied India’s evolving relationship with new geographies, its engagement with new domains of global governance, and the human imperative that must define India’s rise.
Few predict the path ahead will be easy for India, or that latent and legacy challenges confronting this nation can be ignored. Indeed, most assessments in this volume suggest disquiet and uncertainty. Amrita Narlikar begins her essay with a cautionary note on world affairs. “Multilateralism is facing a crisis of unprecedented proportions,” she writes, “It manifests itself in a fundamental questioning of the very value of multilateralism within countries and deadlocks in negotiations in multilateral organisations.” But this global crisis, she argues, also begets opportunities for India. C. Raja Mohan agrees and asserts that this period of churn offers India the opportunity to shed the temptation to act alone and actively build new coalitions and consensus with other powers. But this will depend, he argues, on how quickly India can restructure its traditional worldview.
As Harsh V Pant writes in this essay, this restructuring is already underway, as “India’s past diffidence in making certain foreign policy choices is rapidly giving way to greater readiness to acknowledge the need for a radical shift in thinking about internal capability enhancement by leveraging external partnerships.”
As the world’s centre of gravity shifts from the Atlantic system, India’s engagement with both emerging and old geographies acquires new salience. And this is where the new external partnerships are actively taking shape. Central among these is the dynamically evolving Indo-Pacific construct which, as Premesha Saha posits, will weave communities, markets and states from the East Pacific to East Africa into one strategic geography. How India adapts its “economic structure” to these realities and implements its “commitment to prevent hegemony in the oceans”, argues Kwame Owino, will determine its ability to lead these new regions.
But shaping new geographies will also require India to manage certain old relationships. The Indo-Pacific should not be seen in isolation—its markets and communities are also rapidly integrating with the Eurasian supercontinent. Steven Blockmans laments that the India-EU relationship has underperformed given its potential to anchor democratic and rules-based governance in greater Eurasia. Solomon Passy and Angel Apostolov boldly make the case for exploring the possibility of a dialogue between NATO and India, indicating just how drastically—and rapidly—the mental maps of the world are morphing.
There is a common thread that binds these analyses: A keen interest in India’s evolving relationship with the US and China. These three nations will, after all, rank among the largest three economies by the middle of this century. The turbulent Twenties will see the dynamics of this power triangle assume centre stage. The US sees India as a partner in its endeavour to neutralise an increasingly aggressive and expansionist China. Jane Holl Lute argues that India “has understood China’s principal strategic aim to replace the United States as the most consequential security power in Asia”. While India’s choices will undoubtedly implicate the balance of power between the US and China, India will most likely chart its own course in international affairs.
ORF Distinguished Fellow Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan highlights India’s behaviour in international negotiations on outer space as a primary example. In every significant process—from the UN GGE to the EU CoC—India has argued for greater multilateralism while actively discouraging behaviour that is “inherently destabilising”. I would add India’s engagement on cyber governance, particularly on emerging technologies, to this list. Although technological systems are rapidly unravelling, India has sought to frame rules for its digital economy that both serve its development interests and preserve interdependence. As Trisha Ray writes, “New Delhi must prepare to shape, rather than be shaped, by these shifting geopolitical winds.” Others remind us that much work still needs to be done. Renato Flores urges India to learn lessons from its RCEP withdrawal, shed traditional hesitations, and emerge as a leading advocate for multilateral trade.
India’s most significant contribution to the global commons will be providing sustainable livelihoods to its own people, and its battle against climate change. Indeed, Oommen Kurian & ShobaSuri begin their analysis with the proposition that success or failure in implementing the global SDG agenda is dependent almost wholly on India achieving its own targets. India already produces nearly half of all global vaccines and is a leading voice on IPR reform, as Khor Swee Kheng & K. Srinath Reddy note, making it essential for global health security. India will also be tasked with achieving livelihood goals for itself and the world in a carbon-constrained world, which is why Jayant Sinha argues that India can no longer rely on the ‘farm to industry’ model of development.
Instead, Nilanjan Ghosh asserts that India’s own goal of becoming a US$10 trillion economy, which is both equitable and inclusive, is only possible by following through on the SDG agenda. All of this, according to Adil Zainulbhai, will be powered by India’s already immense digital infrastructure, innovation capabilities and skilled workforce as it leverages the Fourth Industrial Revolution to its advantage. “India’s green transformation,” asserts Mihir Sharma, “will have to be led by the decisions of its people and by the energy of its private sector.”
It is these twin imperatives—achieving sustainable development and the climate change agenda— that make India a very different type of ‘rising power’. Its path to prominence will not be defined by military dominance or coercive economic capabilities. Instead, India’s rise will be characterised by its ability to provide solutions, technologies and finance to emerging communities in urgent need of new models of economic growth and social mobility. It is this ‘new economic diplomacy’, Navdeep Suri believes, that will define India’s foreign policy priorities in the decade ahead.
Underwriting India’s foreign policy will be its civilisational identity as a democratic, open and plural society. Arguably the most abstract of all its foreign policy tools, India’s own ability to retain social cohesion while providing economic growth and development will, as Prime Minister Stephen Harper observes, help “lead the world as a whole to greater prosperity and peace”. Indeed, each essay has this very sentiment at its core—the importance of India’s rise for its own people, its region, and indeed as a model for the world in this century.
We hope these essays will provide an intellectual stimulus to debates and discussions that will undoubtedly contribute to shaping our collective future, examine our contemporary challenges and allow us a moment to learn from the journey so far. The world in the 2020s demands more from us. Indians must be ready to deliver.