Month: June 2017

US and India — Balancing the rebalance

Sunjoy Joshi and Samir Saran, June 19, 2017, Raisina Debates, ORF Website

Original link is here

Following the ascension of Trump, a swirling ocean of newsfeed has persistently threatened to overwhelm the US rebalance to Asia.

Modi and Trump

New Delhi and Washington, DC, have officially confirmed that Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be meeting President Donald Trump for the first time on 26 June, as the two countries aim towards “a new direction for deeper bilateral engagement” and “consolidation of (their) multi-dimensional strategic partnership.” A pithy, succinct line that could do with some unpacking.

Significantly, the meeting precedes the G-20 gathering in Hamburg, with the prospect of President Trump and German Chancellor Angela Merkel once again locking horns. Modi had recently visited Germany, Spain, France and Russia, creating ground for some interesting dynamics as he heads to meet Trump.

Reasons for anxiety on the strategic front are aplenty. Following the ascension of Trump, a swirling ocean of newsfeed has persistently threatened to overwhelm the US rebalance to Asia that had just about put the US-India relationship on an even keel. Now, the aggressive Trump take on outsourcing and associated visa regimes, as well as the differing public declarations regarding the Paris Agreement by Trump and Modi, are threatening to rock the boat.

These are not necessarily uncharted waters. Practically every new US presidency has begun with some uncertainty over the India-US relationship. The reasons are obvious. India’s fractious democracy has invariably confounded investors, financiers, market movers and strategists alike. However, given time, every US administration has learnt that India as a democracy demands strategic patience.

Invariably, after a year or so spent courting other global actors, the merits of investing in and developing the India partnership become obvious to every US president. Most recently, President Barack Obama’s early and brief dalliance with the G-2 made way for the Pivot to Asia and the signing of the Asia Pacific vision document with India in 2015.

Hence, any skepticism regarding the future of this relationship is easily overstated. The experience of the past few administrations in both countries also reveals that it was the lead taken by the political leadership that has been responsible for the flowering of the relationship — at times even to the chagrin of their own bureaucracies and the commentariat. Whether it was the 123 Agreement of 2008, or the January 2015 “Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia Pacific and the Indian Ocean Region,” the strategic political push from the very top was unmistakable.

Just like the 123 agreement, the Joint Vision of 2015 was also, in many ways, a first for India. It had put itself out, almost on a limb, to boldly join the US in articulating a joint vision not just for the bilateral partnership, but also for Asia and beyond. And it did so unabashedly by proclaiming this as a righteous union of the “world’s two largest democracies” — a rare instance when India used normative virtue as the foundation for a bilateral agreement.

This was also that unique occasion when India, known for its wariness and hedging its alliances, stepped out and signed on to a vision for the entire sweep of the Asia Pacific. In doing this, it recognised the Indo Pacific not just as a sub-region of the Asia Pacific but also as a geostrategic maritime domain in its own right. PM Modi’s Act East Policy found resonance in the American Pivot to Asia proposition.

However, the normative appeal of the US now looks a trifle jaded. This is especially so when viewed in the light of the ambivalence cast on the centrality of the Asia-Pacific by an ‘America First’ policy. The paradox is that this is happening at a time when the contests of the region are simultaneously moving westwards, thanks to a host of geopolitical developments. Given these trends, what the United States may today perceive to be “faraway” concerns are moving ever closer to its spheres of influence.

The first and obvious challenge is the rise of China, which through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is seeking to integrate the Eurasian landmass and build a bridge between the Indian and Pacific Oceans.

Any scenario in which China becomes the primary strategic influencer of outcomes in the Indian Ocean challenges the US status as the predominant Asian power.

Alongside this, we are witnessing the return of Vladimir Putin to Afghanistan, as his newfound penchant for a partnership with Pakistan begins to upend Cold War assumptions that have shaped US presence in the region. In addition, the sudden sharp schism within the Gulf Cooperation Council in an already complicated West Asia is significantly testing the US resolve in the region.

Therefore, at a time when there is evidence of a fair amount of rebalance in this part of the world, there is certainly the need for a “consolidation of (the India-US) multi-dimensional strategic partnership.” It becomes imperative then to move beyond the vagaries of the 24X7 news cycle and reiterate the strategic repositioning of the India US partnership based on three key points of cohesion.

First, taking a cue from the 2015 document, the India-US relationship is increasingly based on a cohesion of norms. Logically this translates into an imminent convergence on international law, dispute resolution, and a host of matters related to global governance including the provision of Global Public Goods (GPG). The two sides need to reaffirm the importance of safeguarding maritime security and ensuring freedom of navigation and overflight throughout the region, including the South China Sea.

Even while admitting that there may be differences between us on the issue of freedom of navigation, there can be little doubt that the region has the same importance in our geo-economic calculus. India’s three largest trading relationships lie in East Asia and 55% of its trade flows through the South China Sea.

Can this vision progress to a normative framework co-created with other countries in the region? For instance, can the US and India propose a guidance document on the Blue Economy with other like minded countries? This would stipulate normative approaches to key issues such as infrastructure investments, coastal security, dispute resolution, and community led consultative processes.

That leads to the second cohesion, a shared understanding around Asian connectivity over land, sea, and the digital domain. There is need for an alternative blueprint to the BRI that the US and India, with other partners, must propose — one that connects East, South, Central Asia and Africa.

This framework must integrate a host of bottom up initiatives to explore sustainable and innovate ways to fulfill Asia’s aspirations for infrastructure, employment, and economic opportunities, rather than tie countries down to binding commitments around finance and repayment of debt. The possibilities are endless and encompass hard infrastructure, digital connectivity, knowledge clusters and value chains that straddle the two oceans, from Palo Alto to Bengaluru, Tokyo to Tel Aviv and every place in between.

The cohesion in norms and connectivity then necessitates the third — a cohesion of power. Over time, the individual assessments, approaches and responses to the politics of the region will increasingly harmonise.

Some key building blocks are in place. As part of their 10 year Defence Framework Agreement inked in Jan 2015, the two sides agreed to pursue joint development and production projects. Importantly, the US has reaffirmed India’s status as a “major defence partner.” It is working to relax India-specific regulations on export controls, and amending Export Administration Regulations (EAR) for transfers of particular items to India. The new rule also amends the law so that companies will not need a licence after becoming a Validated End User (VEU).

The logistics pact, signed in August 2016, after almost a decade of negotiations, has added a new dimension to the partnership. The new India specific logistics support agreement — Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) — is on the verge of being operationalised.

However, the underlying transformation is far deeper. Common weapon systems, joint use of facilities and common defence infrastructure and logistics will, over time, work to align strategic postures as well as security assessments and responses.

Given the unfolding dynamics of the region, both the US and India are compelled to have strong relations with countries such as South Korea, Japan, Vietnam, and the ASEAN countries. They are also compelled to manage a complex relationship with China. For, China is a vital economic partner for both countries, even as it remains a strategic challenge that needs to be accommodated.

India’s position is further complicated by the reality of a 4,000 km long border, and a restive niggling Western front that the Dragon is ever ready to stoke. India may see the CPEC as an infringement on its sovereignty, but the BRI as a project is slowly but surely capturing the imagination of Asia as well as Europe. China is positioning it as the big promise of the 21st century to further trade, development and prosperity through an economically integrated Asia and Europe. It is clear that strategically, China is on a determined “march West”, wherein the contest for control of the Indian Ocean and Eurasia are part of a greater push which has but one destination — the heart of Europe.

It is important that the US and India move beyond the scope of the 2015 Agreement that limits their mutual engagement to India’s Eastern seaboard, and craft a new partnership that includes the western expanse of the Indo Pacific across the Arabian Sea to the Cape of Good Hope.


They need to do this, not by themselves, but in conjunction with allies, through treaties and agreements, with cajoling, handholding and networked security arrangements. The network of treaties, norms and rule based agreements across the full sweep of the Indo Pacific must continue to evolve. Not to do so would be to allow Beijing to set the terms of engagement in this region by default.

This piece had begun by highlighting the virtue of strategic patience that has been the hallmark of the US in its dealings with India. Now, as the US discovers through its own experience that all true democracies can and do become fractious, when contentious domestic debates distract from strategic choices, it may be India’s turn to return the favour and demonstrate strategic patience.

There is merit in waiting: a stronger India is by itself a net positive for the United States as it finds itself stretched to capacity in Asia; and a US that emerges from its current political churn is bound to be a reliable partner as India stands up to defend a rules based order in this part of the world.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s).

AI replicating same conceptions of gender roles that are being removed in real world

June 17, 2017, Economics Times, ToI

Original link is here

By Vidisha Mishra & Samir Saran

A recent article in The Guardian ( estimated that the sex tech industry, which is less than adecade old, is already worth $30 billion. This estimate is expected to grow exponentially as industry gears up to unveil hyper-realistic female sex robots customised for men. This has two main implications: first, considerable money, time and effort are dedicated towards modelling machine behaviour to cater to male preferences by objectifying the female form. Second, the technology needed to drive these innovations are designed in most cases by male coders.

The gender equation is reinforced in another manner. While lines of code are written by men, artificial intelligence (AI) is often female. The fact that Siri, Alexa, Amelia, Amy and Cortana are all designed as hyperintelligent yet servile female chatbots is not coincidental.

On the other hand, women’s participation (and, therefore, data sets from women) in certain media fora is highly under-represented. A 2015 paper by the Observer Research Foundation’s Sydney Anderson (‘India’s Gender Digital Divide: Women and Politics on Twitter’, found women’s voices to be “significantly under-represented” in online political conversations.

So, it is not surprising then that when Microsoft released the ‘millennial’ chatbot Tay in March 2016, she quickly adapted to her male-dominated ecosystem and started using racist slurs and sexually offensive language on Twitter. As coders and consumers of technology are largely male, they are crafting algorithms that absorb existing gender and racial prejudices.

AI is replicating the same conceptions of gender roles that are being removed in the real world. For instance, Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana and Amazon’s Alexa are essentially modelled after efficient and subservient secretaries. This seemingly innocuous assignment of female characteristics to AI personalities has dangerous implications. These chatbots reportedly receive sexually-charged messages on a regular basis. More damaging still is the fact that they are programmed to respond deferentially or even play along with such suggestions. Essentially, sexual harassment that has now been made illegal in physical workplaces is normalised by AI.

Voices of disembodied, supportive AI tend to be female as both men and women find them less threatening. This comfort in issuing orders to a female voice is inherently problematic that tech companies have now acknowledged. Not only are companies investing in developing male bots and genderless bots, reportedly when someone asks Cortana, “Are you a girl?” she replies, “No. But I’m awesome like a girl.” Similarly, Alexa has been described as a ‘self-identified feminist’.

While feminist female chatbots are encouraging, they can hardly solve the inbuilt sexism by design of AI. In 2015, Carnegie Mellon University researchers found that the Google search engine was less likely to show ads of highly paid jobs to women as compared to men. A 2016 study discovered that data-mining algorithms associated words like philosopher, captain, warrior and boss with maleness, while top results for ‘she’ were homemaker, nurse and receptionist.

As AI grows in influence and gender biases continue seeping through algorithms, existing inequalities will be exacerbated. In India, for instance, the legal sector is gradually embracing AI, which is expected to improve speed and efficiency by automating tasks such as document drafting, undertaking legal research and due diligence. Similarly, news-writing bots are now functioning in the world of journalism.

In both cases, AI will autonomously generate output by identifying story angles based on algorithms with ‘built-in’ criteria. When cases involving sexual violence and their portrayal in traditional news media are already under scrutiny, it’s important to question how male-hegemonic data sets will impact future news stories and court coverage of sexual assault and other topics requiring greater gender sensitivity. Since only 29% of internet users and 28% of mobile phone owners in India are women, improving access to basic information and communication technology services and infrastructure remains critical.

There is nothing inherently empowering or sexist about technology. It just reflects the values of its creators.

(The writers are with Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi)

DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.

Staying away from China’s Belt and Road Initiative must be backed by India strengthening its own (digital) backbone

June 9, 2017,

By Samir Saran & Arun Sukumar

Original link is here

External engagement is a factor of internal priorities. This has been an abiding tenet of India’s foreign policy. Which is why it’s puzzling that New Delhi’s policy towards China’s ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ (BRI) is out of touch with the reality of Chinese involvement in India’s own economy.

When the Pakistani daily, Dawn, revealed China’s plans to build Pakistan’s internet backbone via the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) last month (, influential voices in India scoffed at Islamabad’s open invitation to Beijing to surveil its society. China is not only creating Pakistan’s fibre optic backbone but it is also developing its digital infrastructure for law and order ‘monitoring and control’.

The Chops and the Sticks
Just as the CPEC is BRI’s flagship project, the creation of information and communication technology (ICT) ecosystems is the most important element of BRI. In no other area will Beijing’s influence on BRI member states be more pronounced than in cyberspace. Because China can supply digital goods at extremely competitive prices.

India has stayed away from BRI to counter China’s influence on the region’s economies. This concern was eloquently articulated in 2015 by foreign secretary S Jaishankar, who suggested China was looking to “hard wire” norms of governance in Asia.


Digital spaces, in the absence of settled international regimes, are ripe for such hardwiring. Unfortunately, this concern is acute in India’s own digital economy.

Sample these statistics from the Kleiner Perkins Internet Trends 2017 report released on May 31. Four of the top-selling five smartphones in India today are Chinese: Lenovo, Oppo, Vivo and Xiaomi. Their collective market share grew from a modest 15 per cent in 2014 to an astonishing 52 per cent by the first quarter of 2017. More importantly, this growth came at the cost of Indian manufacturers, whose market share declined exactly in reverse, from 45 per cent to 15 per cent in three years.

The report also suggests UC Browser, developed by China’s internet giant Alibaba, has carved out a 50 per cent share of India’s mobile browser market. A 2015 ExIm bank report concluded that India is China’s largest “recipient of capital investment in electronics”. In 2013-14, China accounted for a staggering 58 per cent of all electronic imports to India.

So, one could argue that all roads from China’s digital economy lead to India. Given Beijing’s pervasive reach over India’s IT ecosystem, is it anyone’s case that BRI policies will not affect New Delhi?

The Indian response to China’s domination of its digital economy should not be to ban Chinese products and services. That would only halt the surge in internet penetration in India, and go against the grain of this government’s ‘Digital India’ and ‘Make in India’ initiatives. If anything, China’s technology giants must be invited to build capacity in India, whether in high-end manufacturing, data analytics abilities or through financing R&D in Indian universities. They must be encouraged to be honest interlocutors and to refrain from exploitative trade activities.

Fasten the Belt on the Road
From a strategic perspective, it must be ensured that China’s creeping influence over cyberspace rules does not pose a challenge for India. Indian players should not find themselves shut out by Chinese competition from the region’s digital economies, or at the very least, from their own.

Boycotting the Belt and Road Summit in Beijing last month was New Delhi’s political signal to Asian countries that it is willing to challenge China’s economic influence in the region.

This resistance cannot be premised on providing loans, products or services for the digital economy at par with China, not when India’s own market relies heavily on Chinese players.

It should, instead, be driven by a multilateral effort — led by India and other major economies like Japan, Singapore and South Korea — to set norms of governance for cyberspace in Asia. Such an effort would involve both a high-level understanding on the strategic and military uses of cyberspace, and dialogue between major industrial players on the technical standards and protocols to be adopted by them.

A rule-based ecosystem is the only way to prevent Chinese companies from dumping cheap devices in foreign markets, and gaming regulations to suit their products. But to incubate such an effort, India needs to articulate its own laws on data integrity, encryption, the access for law enforcement to electronic data, the Internet of Things and digital payments.

India’s most effective antidote to Chinese influence in Asia is the creation of an open domestic market, serving the ‘Digital India’ goals of inclusive and affordable connectivity, but secure and reliable enough that other jurisdictions can emulate as their own.

Without a baseline reference for the global standards it seeks to promote, India will also not be able to stem the influence of China in Asian markets.

Foreign policy is decisive in the pursuit of India’s strategic interests. But it is merely an extension of its domestic values and principles. A Digital India serves India’s interest when it is attractive to others and offers solutions others seek to embrace. India’s forceful show of intent by staying away from BRI must be backed by its own strategy to moderate China’s rise.

And that work begins at home.

(The writers are with the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi)