Columns/Op-Eds, Politics / Globalisation

President Xi and Secretary Tillerson: what two speeches tell us about the future of China and the US

Flags of U.S. and China are placed for a meeting between Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue and China's Minister of Agriculture Han Changfu at the Ministry of Agriculture in Beijing, China June 30, 2017. REUTERS/Jason Lee - RC1A8F925660

Landmark addresses by President Xi Jinping and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson were a study in contrast

The past week has been a significant one for speeches. The first was President Xi Jinping’s marathon three-and-a-half-hour-long “report”, inaugurating the Communist Party of China’s (CPC) 19th National Congress. The 68-year-old Xi, widely regarded as the most influential Chinese leader since Chairman Mao, laid his ambition for the Asian giant bare, with his plan for “socialism with Chinese characteristics” in a “new era”.


As head of the party, military and state, Xi has accomplished what other world leaders can only dream of: an unprecedented centralization of power. He has the authority to make the world’s largest armed forces and the huge transnational Chinese corporations an instrument of his state policy, and this gives him the muscle to rewrite the rules of international politics.


His repeated swipes at President Trump’s “America first” policy, and emphasis on China’s positive role in global governance, sent a clear message: this new era would be Chinese-led, with China able and willing to commit political, military and economic capital to ensure that it happens. Needless to say, the “Chinese dream” – which includes becoming a global tech leader by 2035, reconnecting Eurasia with the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and achieving a strong, prosperous society by 2049 – brings with it implications for the rest of the world.


Before China can become a global leader, however, it must consolidate its position in Asia – arguably the most important region in the 21st century. What truly defines China’s ambitions in Asia is the BRI – Xi’s signature development strategy, which he called on the country to pursue as a priority. There was an underlying message to those who oppose or question it.

Image: Lowy Institute

China’s proposition

Ostensibly, the BRI is a regional connectivity project, stretching from oil and gas projects in Myanmar to ports in Malaysia and Pakistan, to a military base in Djibouti. This also creates the physical infrastructure for China’s “march west” to capture high-value markets in Europe – an essential part of its rise.

At its core, however, the BRI creates strategic co-dependencies between China and host states, setting the stage for what may be a Sino-centric world order. Already, China is in a position to create norms and rules across the wider region. Its leadership, through institutions like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and initiatives such as the Regional Comprehensive Trade Partnership, significantly aid China in this effort.

While Xi was careful to point out that China’s rise would not be hegemonic, his speech also celebrated China’s militarization of the South China Sea (SCS), regarded by some as detrimental to the smaller littorals in that region.


Additionally, several of China’s regional projects have saddled smaller nations with debts they are struggling to repay, as was Sri Lanka’s experience with the Hambantota port. New Delhi, which boycotted the BRI summit in May over these very concerns (alongside the principal concern around sovereignty), was rewarded with a 73-day military standoff in the Himalayas.


Xi is confident that other developing countries would benefit from China’s rise. He was clear, however, that China would always protect its national interests – an attitude that will by definition be disadvantageous to many of its neighbours.

A democratic counterweight

Against this backdrop, the second important speech was delivered by the US Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, a week before he is expected to visit New Delhi. Emphasizing on the importance of “shared democratic values”, Tillerson set out to define America’s “relationship with India for the next century”. Delivered on the same day as Xi’s landmark address, the speech extolled India’s peaceful rise, while chastising China’s disdain for international law and sovereignty.


Notably, Tillerson’s critique of the BRI was the strongest the Trump administration has made so far. Earlier in July, an Indo-US joint statement made only an oblique reference to “regional connectivity”, echoing some of India’s concerns. Tillerson, however, was more direct.

Tillerson hailed the US and India as the “eastern and western beacons of the Indo-Pacific”. Having struggled to balance China’s rise in the SCS, the US is keen to prevent the same kind of maritime militarization elsewhere – an objective India undoubtedly shares. Tillerson sees cooperation among the “Indo-Pacific democracies” – namely, India, Japan, the US and Australia – as key to stability in Asia.


With an eye on China, Tillerson’s speech is a call to like-minded states to ensure a rule-based multipolar governance architecture. Already, there is clear convergence of norms between the democratic powers – the US and Japan have reiterated India’s position that regional integration must be financed responsibly and must respect sovereignty. Similarly, Japan and India have echoed the US stance on freedom of navigation and peaceful resolution of maritime disputes. India led by example when it peacefully settled its dispute with Bangladesh recently.


Leading from behind?

What Tillerson’s speech tells us is that the Trump administration is correct in its reading of the geopolitical currents in Asia. It also tells us, unfortunately, that the US has no coherent response. Tillerson’s vague call for “some means of countering [the BRI] with alternative financing measures” underlines the fact that this and previous American pronouncements have not been matched by actual political actions and propositions. There is little to demonstrate that there has been any serious attempt to put together an alternative to the Chinese-led BRI in Washington, DC.

Unlike China, which is forging ahead on its own with its own roadmap, America is attempting to stitch together an alliance that is heavily limited by the larger political compulsions, both its own and those of its partners. Australia, for example, is still debating the nature of its relationship with China, and refusing to take a clear stance on either the BRI or on a maritime order, while Japan is still unsure about transitioning from its pacifist constitution. The US’s own willingness to engage with Pakistan limits its ability to integrate with India. India will confirm that, while it was staring down the dragon in the Himalayas recently, it was indeed lonely.


Xi has transformed China into a military heavyweight. Taking into account Beijing’s relaxed purse strings, no developing country can ignore China’s allure. American reluctance to address China’s rise head-on has already seen it lose influence in Asia, including with strategic partner the Philippines. While Tillerson’s words may constitute fresh rhetoric from DC, they will have limited impact on China’s influence, unless backed by real political and economic investments in the region.


Hardening fault-lines


The speeches by Xi and Tillerson are a study in contrast, and are reflective of the complex times in which they are given. At a time when US primacy is waning, Asia is rapidly emerging as the centre of global economic growth. The geopolitical implications are significant, and the institutional arrangements in Washington to manage this development are missing or feeble.


Both politicians sought to address this paradigm and were distinct in their tenor. Xi was imperious and forthright; with no signs of hesitation, he appeared certain that China was a power whose time had come and that he was destined to deliver “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”.


Tillerson, on the other hand, voiced anxiety around managing a rapidly changing environment. It was a plea for collective action; to serve ambiguous goals; on behalf of a country whose policy of “leading from behind” is fast turning into, as US diplomat Richard Haass puts it, “leaving from behind”. The fate of the international order depends on which narrative ultimately prevails. Writing the script for this era will require a strong hand. As things stand currently, we know from whom the ink flows.

Original link is here

The great liberal fallacy

Samir Saran|Jaibal Naduvath

Liberal fundamentalism is now at war with unbridled street anger, whose revisionist purpose and impatience have exhibited a dangerous capacity to self-destruct.

 Mark Rothko, Tate London, liberal, fallacy, liberalism, public influence, Samir Saran
Source: Pete/CC BY-SA 2.0

PROLOGUE: In April of 2016, UC Berkeley cancelled Milo Yiannopoulos’ planned speech in response to campus protests. For an institution that prides itself on its long and stellar liberal legacy — the centerpiece of which is the freedom to hold and express a view, irrespective of its political persuasion — the Rubicon was silently crossed.

The appeal of liberalism lies in its capacity to accommodate difference, to resist the instinctive urge to reduce the ‘other’ to fit the prisms of the ‘self’, and to recognise their independent and distinct agency. This lends it the unique capacity to account for the ambivalent nature of truth, to recognise and accept the many greys of reality and allow for the creation of assimilative and syncretic spaces.

Liberal, pluralist approaches have formed the basis for modern societies, where diverse opinions, preferences and choices make up a grand social and political canvas.

Ideologies, however, possess a fundamental contradiction: they are seldom ever practised as idealised. Participation in the liberal public sphere was compromised by the inability to widen access and agency beyond a select few with economic means and social ‘status’. The poor, racial and ethnic minorities and even women remained excluded from its ambit.

Key conversations that organised politics, economics and social norms thus largely remained an elite discussion, which despite their apparent differences, shared common class interests and presumptions around morality. This convergence of interests shaped the public discourse. It trickled down to the society through one-way, mass-oriented technologies of print and broadcast media, owned and controlled by this class, informed by their thinking and influenced by their sensibilities. The discourse thus remained incestuous and public consensus often imaginary and contrived.

The inherent flaw in this model was its contrariness to the liberal dictum. It left out large swathes of people who were constrained by the economics of access and politics of acceptance. The liberal public sphere has thus always remained contested and illiberal in its practice.

The domination of a Western cultural-technological narrative, mostly at the cost of indigenous ethos in non-Western settings, meant that it soon became an ideal that was either imposed upon or embraced by societies with sometimes-different social evolutions. This then became another reason of discord in many localities, where existing socio-economic exclusions were reinforced through elite discourse. The marginalised were now also voiceless.

Then came the Internet and social media, which dramatically altered the social canvas. It mainstreamed the marginal.

The ever-reducing cost of the internet sees more users getting online each day, increasing the reach of the medium and the consequent amplification of multiple messages. The ease and simplicity of engagement afforded by social media’s two-way communication architecture has proven the most disruptive.

Breaking from the past, where power simply came to be concentrated with a new elite, and subjugating those not fortunate enough to be a part of it, the new order has dispersed discursive power.

Without the shackles of previous structures, the internet has allowed large sections of society, hitherto outside the public sphere, to organise themselves, script their own narratives and shape their own democracy. The significant lowering of the barriers of entry, allowed, for the first time, meaningful mass participation in public discourse. Attempts to control and regulate access have had limited impact at best, as the medium forever brings forth new methods to circumvent control, and new pathways to agitate, constantly altering ways to propagate and receive ideas.

While the dominant and the marginal have constantly renegotiated their power equations throughout history, what distinguishes the new dynamic is its participative nature. It has levelled class differences. That too at an unprecedented pace. Breaking from the past, where power simply came to be concentrated with a new elite, and subjugating those not fortunate enough to be a part of it, the new order has dispersed discursive power.

The newcomers with digital ‘megaphones’ are not bound by old class structures. Instead, deeply aggrieved by their long exclusion, they have set about recasting the public sphere by challenging class presumptions and breaching the boundaries that define it. For their anger is deeper, their hate more potent, and their victimhood more tragic.

Mark Rothko, Tate London, liberal, fallacy, liberalism, public influence, Samir Saran
Source: Pete/CC BY-SA 2.0

Their revenge and redemption lies in dismantling old structures and antiquated arenas that set the rules of social behaviour and public debate. They have successfully challenged, and in several cases, even usurped established political systems, catapulting into power the marginal, whose project now is to legitimise their world-view and consolidate their new-found power and authority. They sought to recast institutions of state and society in the mould of their truths and beliefs. In many instances, these truths and beliefs were defined not by substantive new ethics but being in contest with the normative.

The new wave was responsible for several populist mass movements in the last decade. The Tunisian Revolution, Arab Spring or the 2011 pro-democracy protests in China constitute resistance at the bleeding edge of this change. On the other hand, the coming to power of populist governments on a fierce anti-establishment plank in the US, India, Indonesia, the Philippines and elsewhere through a process of democratic transition constitutes resistance at the soft edge. Nevertheless, at their core, they share similar objectives and use similar approaches, which combine aggressive street dissent and internet activism. Arising from their disillusionment, the objective of the new stakeholders has mostly gravitated to dismantle what existed while seldom possessing a meaningful alternate blueprint.

The newcomers with digital ‘megaphones’ are not bound by old class structures. Instead, deeply aggrieved by their long exclusion, they have set about recasting the public sphereby challenging class presumptions and breaching the boundaries that define it.

In How the Mind Works, Steven Pinker says that binary logic helps one to quickly choose: between fight or flight, between one moral position and another. This lends it a near hypnotic capacity in public discourses where attention spans are notoriously short and competitive appeal relies more on rhetoric than meaning. Diminished in influence and capacity to influence political change, the old elite’s response has situated itself in exploiting this pernicious blindside of mass psyche.

They have sought to oversimplify the discourse by obfuscating inherent subtleties and ambiguities that inform reality, reducing the conversation to binary labels built around reciprocal determination: ‘fake news’; our liberalism versus their illiberalism; our accommodativeness versus their intolerance, our goodness versus their evil. This simplistic binary logic is easier to perpetuate as it does not ensnare the ‘plebs’ in complex subtleties.

Their project relies on reducing newcomers through selective representations made up of half-truths, lumpenising, and denial of agency, in a colonial intellectualism redux. In the manifest, their new narrative is built upon the twin pillars of condescension and fear.

They seek to entangle the newcomers in discussions alien to them, using a mix of provocation and patronage. Their anxiety and uncertain response in new settings is used to contrast this seemingly inferior agency with superior experiences of the ‘self’. The ‘different’ approach of the ‘other’ then becomes the rationale of the politics of disdain, of their boorishness, and lesser agency.

This is captured by the new energy infused into and fear perpetuated through the ‘fake news’ narrative. Framed as a novelty, the liberal elites accuse the newcomers of resorting to it, thereby diminishing the quality of debate and political response. This approach is reductive as it dismisses the real and perceived grievances attached to these narratives. Belittling them as ‘fake’ provides the perfect alibi to ignore accumulated hurt and anger.

And then the hypocrisy. Is ‘fake news’ new? Can we discount its historical role in political and public discourse, and its use by elites who hitherto dominated the public sphere, in furthering their interests and sustaining class dominance? From that standpoint, it at best constitutes a borrowed institutional practice by the new stakeholders.

William Hazlitt once said: ‘Just as much as we see in others we have in ourselves.’ In resorting to labels and framing their discourse through a narrow binary logic, in resorting to the politics of fear and denial of the other’s ‘otherness’, the old elite reveal their Janus face. In seeking to create a counter narrative which is morally absolutist, where the only just choice on offer is theirs, they have become the same as the abhorred other of their imagination — fundamentalist, polarising and dangerous, and every bit as regressive and illiberal.

This clash between the old and the new is for the crown jewels of acquisition, ownership and retention of public influence and space. The ethic at the core of this struggle is power.

Liberal fundamentalism is now at war with unbridled street anger, whose revisionist purpose and impatience have exhibited a dangerous capacity to self-destruct.

Away from this contest for the zeitpolitik, then, participants in the new public sphere, old and new alike, need to arrive at an entente cordiale built upon the vast grounds they share. The only fair redemption is in moving away from binaries, to adopting a syncretic approach that is above the politics of difference; in charting new pathways that are inclusive and representative of mainstream and marginal interests. Such space exists, but between arrogance of the ‘self’ and anger for the ‘other’.

EPILOGUE: In August of 2016, armed French policemen walked up to a woman at a beach in Nice. The woman, in a burkini, was made to remove some of her clothes and ticketed for failing to upkeep ‘secularism and good morals’.

This commentary originally appeared in Open Magazine.

Non-Traditional Security, Politics / Globalisation

Intelligent interlocution

Economic Times, ET Commentary, 24 October, 2017

Original link is here

On Tuesday, the former chief of the Intelligence Bureau, Dineshwar Sharma, was appointed as the Government of India’s representative for Kashmir, in a bid to, in the words of Union home minister Rajnath Singh, “open a sustained dialogue” with stakeholders holding various shades of opinion in the beleaguered state of Jammu and Kashmir.

Dialogue, however, is rarely easy in Kashmir. History, religion, external actors, changing demographics and a technology-driven news environment have turned Kashmir into a perpetually simmering tinderbox of violence and cacophonous opinions.

In his book, Clash of Barbarisms: September 11 and the Making of the New World Disorder, Soas political scientist Gilbert Achcar famously wrote that the US and the Arab world were caught between two ‘barbarianisms’: Islamic fundamentalism and the military muscle of a superpower.

Kashmir, unfortunately, finds itself similarly trapped: a tragic painting of what ails many other parts of the world. A reality where the brutal response to ‘jihad’ and the ‘jihad’ itself affect similar populations.

The first ‘barbarianism’ results from poor state capacity in responding to incidents of terror, violence and unrest in J&K. Each time violence erupts in Kashmir, it generates an exasperatingly similar set of reactions.

Absent of any political guidance, and clever and contemporary security responses, the state police and army resort to brutal methods of crowd control, generating further outrage and disaffection.

Even as angry prime-time anchors fall over themselves to carry the banner of nationalism to garner TRPs, the Valley feels victimised twice over.

The second ‘barbarianism’ is the rabid violence of the extremists, who draw their self-perceived virility from social media where their perverse actions are extolled and eulogised. In turn, tech-savvy, disgruntled and often indoctrinated young men from Kashmir fall prey to the illusion of ‘Azadi’ (freedom) and the romanticism of a transnational jihad. Trapped in the futile narrative of a ‘colonising’ India and an occupied ‘Kashmir’, the aspirations of the state’s citizens remain unfulfilled and democracy mostly defeated.

The Vale Beyond the Veil

Caught between these two extremes, successive central governments in New Delhi have consistently failed to create a political opening to quell this recursive violence. If the Narendra Modi government is intent on making a sincere attempt to free Kashmir from this pattern, it must take stock of past failures and the lessons that they offer.

For one, the rest of the world is largely unsympathetic to separatist and radical movements, especially in areas where Islamic ideologies have taken hold in the post-9/11scenario. It is less likely than ever that the ‘Kashmir conflict’ will be ‘internationalised’, or other parties will seek to mediate.

This, however, may not be a bad thing as it has created enormous space for dialogue, which, in the case of Kashmir, is repeatedly wasted away by unimaginative State policy. Poor governance, failure to empower and create local institutions, and the lack of sustainable economic integration has left the Kashmiris disillusioned and secluded.

Second, despite the predictability of protests and uprisings, the Indian State’s inability to engage with the Valley manifests itself repeatedly through its failure to build police capacity that responds humanely. A larger failure in recent times has been the lack of capability to control the narrative. More often than not, sophisticated separatist propaganda successfully hijacks public perception and imagination.

Add to this, the vicious social media debates between the political parties at the Centre to use the travails of Kashmiris as a useful prop to score brownie points for, or against, the ruling dispensation. Internet shutdowns and curbs on media freedom only fuel the feeling of isolation at one level, and reveal the helplessness of the state machinery at another.

Finally, New Delhi has continued to invest political capital in a select few elite families, in the hope that they may manage the conflict. This is an unfortunate ‘colonial’ tactic. Outreach involves reaching out to disaffected communities and addressing local concerns, and in discovering new voices and new leadership that have astake in the future. Presumably, this is what Dineshwar Sharma hopes to achieve as special interlocutor.

But he has his work cut out. The predominant discord that has manifested in the past year with a spate of violence has seen the coming together of ideas and actors that are sometimes indigenous and organic, sometimes controlled and contrived, and many a times angry and irrational.

The spontaneous discord that emerged this past summer, though, may have been different and new. The response to it must also be novel. It must discard antiquity, manage malevolence and empower new and young democratic voices.

Talk Peace, Not Piece

The Indian State’s failure so far reflects lazy politics. A successful counterterrorism strategy requires outreach, minus the fear and threat of violence that the state today invokes. At the same time, conversations are meaningless if the State cannot create sufficient peace for dialogue to take place.

The key is to find a balance. Perhaps a consensus in Kashmir will require, to paraphrase Margaret Thatcher, “an abandonment of all beliefs, values and policies. So that it is something in which no one believes and to which no one objects”.

The writer is vice-president, Observer Research Foundation


World Economic Forum, Global Agenda,  3rd October, 2017

Original link is here

Over the years, many observers have expressed skepticism about the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) initiative – and skeptics within the BRICS member states perhaps outnumber those outside.

The reason is a clear lack of traditional logic behind the coming together of these countries. They are dispersed geographically, their economies are in different stages of development and there is a fair degree of ideological dissonance between them. And unlike other economic associations, BRICS does not seek to set up any common political or security architecture.

However, this should not obfuscate the fact that the purpose of BRICS was clear from its inception: to form a convenient and pragmatic 21st-century relationship that pools the influence of its members in order to achieve objectives agreed to by all five countries. In a multipolar world in which economic and political power is rapidly diffusing, the BRICS nations seek to influence and shape the norms of global governance, which have been fashioned by the Atlantic system in the past. BRICS, then, is a coming together of nation states at a particular geopolitical moment to achieve a set of goals.

Each member of BRICS also has their own reason to sustain this plurilateral movement. Russia sees BRICS as a geopolitical counterweight to the eastward expansion of the Atlantic system. For South Africa, BRICS is a means to legitimize its role as a gateway to and powerhouse of the African continent. BRICS allows Brazil to collaborate in the shaping of the Asian century, despite its geographical location. China participates in the forum because it recognizes BRICS as an important vehicle for fashioning governance systems in which its political influence is commensurate to its growing economic heft. Finally, for India, BRICS is a useful bridge between its rising status as a leading power and its erstwhile identity as the leader of the developing world.


How do the BRICS nations sit within the global economy?
Image: BRICS Summit 2015

The first decade of BRICS

BRICS’ first decade saw each of the members laying down groundwork for cooperation, from identifying areas of convergence on political issues to improving economic ties. The level of engagement between its members, ranging from high-level summit and ministerial meetings to various working groups and conferences, has only deepened over that time.

Today there is a fair degree of cooperation on issues such as trade, infrastructure finance, urbanisation and climate change. Moreover, the five members have made modest progress in people-to-people connections. Platforms such as the BRICS Academic Forum and Business Council have proved to be useful in improving their understanding of each other’s industry, academia and government.


Undoubtedly, the two most notable achievements of the BRICS have been the institutionalization of the New Development Bank (NDB) and the Contingency Reserve Arrangement.


The importance of these institutions cannot be understated. For one thing, they mark a shift from political rhetoric to delivering concrete results, alleviating some of the skepticism surrounding the BRICS initiative. More importantly, they represent a partial fulfilment of BRICS’ core raison d’être: to offer credible alternatives to the Atlantic system of global governance.

While such institutions are unlikely to ever replace the IMF or the World Bank, they represent a fundamentally different governance paradigm. By giving equal voting rights to its founding members and improving reliance on local currencies, the BRICS members are attempting to create a new, non-Bretton Woods template for the developing world to emulate.


The end of innocence

Despite achieving a moderate level of success over the last decade, two recent events have brought the divergence between the BRICS members into sharp focus.

The first is the recent military standoff between India and China on the Doklam plateau, which has effectively brought to an end the naive notion that a comfortable political relationship is always possible amongst the BRICS members. The second is China’s efforts at creating a ‘BRICS plus’ model, a thinly veiled attempt to co-opt nation states, which are integral to its Belt and Road Initiative, into a broader political arrangement.


Both of these events highlight how the foundational principles of BRICS – respect for sovereign equality and pluralism in global governance – are liable to be tested as the five member countries pursue their own national agendas.


However, instead of derailing the BRICS project, these developments are likely to inject a level of pragmatism into the initiative. While BRICS itself is unlikely to form the lynchpin of foreign policy for any of its members, it will continue to be an important instrument in their toolkit.


Essentially, the BRICS members are now likely to realise that the group itself is a ‘limited purpose partnership’ in which political barriers will always limit the partnership’s full economic potential.

The next decade?

If BRICS is to remain relevant over the next decade, each of its members must make a realistic assessment of the initiative’s opportunities and inherent limitations.

BRICS did well in its first decade to identify issues of common interests and to create platforms to address these issues. However, new political realities require the BRICS nations to recalibrate their approach and to recommit to their founding ethos.

For one, they must reaffirm their commitment to a multipolar world that allows for sovereign equality and democratic decision-making. Only by doing so can they address the asymmetry of power within the group and in global governance generally. Only this approach will strengthen multilateralism.


Second, they must build on the success of the NDB and invest in additional BRICS institutions. It will be useful for BRICS to develop an institutional research wing, along the lines of the OECD, which can offer solutions distinct from western-led knowledge paradigms and which is better suited to the developing world.

Third, they should consider a BRICS-led effort to meet their commitments under the Paris Agreement on climate change and the UN’s sustainable development goals. This could include, for example, setting up a BRICS energy alliance and an energy policy institution. Similarly, the NDB in partnership with other development finance institutions could be a potent vehicle to finance progress towards the sustainable development goals amongst the BRICS members.


Fourth, the BRICS nations can also consider expanding the remit of their cooperation to address emerging areas of global governance such as outer space, the oceans and the internet.

Finally, the BRICS members must encourage direct interactions between their constituents. In the digital age, seamless conversations amongst people, business and academia can foster relationships, which are more likely to cement the future of this alliance than any government efforts.


For the first decade of its existence, the group was powered by a top-down approach with large investments of political capital. The second decade must ride on the energy and entrepreneurship of the citizens and communities that reside within the BRICS countries.




Digital Debates — CyFy Journal 2017

Samir Saran| Sean Kanuck

Technology and transformation

In many parts of the world, tensions offline are now mirrored online. In the manner of a Wachowskis movie, machines influence both realities and the perception of such realities, often expressed online. The challenge for those seeking to “govern” or “regulate” cyberspace, then, is the umbilical connection between digital networks and their offline effects. How do you cut the cord? One or another way of regulating cyberspace today may have unintended consequences for all facets of economic life, social engagements and political discourse. Many governments, acknowledging this problem, have tried to regulate the effects of technology, rather than the technologies themselves. This year’s edition of Digital Debates explores, in twelve engaging pieces, how this process of “cyber-“ regulation has been influenced by watershed political and military events, upending the role of state and non-state actors as traditionally understood.

The year 2017 was tumultuous for politics, economics, and international relations. While the global community was still coming to terms with the United Kingdom’s decision to exit the European Union, the American public voted for Donald Trump, who may be described as the unlikeliest yet of candidates to have contested the US presidency. President Trump ran a campaign that many had considered antithetical to the soul of America—the free flow of capital and people. By most indications, Trump is determined to reshape American foreign policy, global governance institutions, international trade and security.

President Trump’s ascent to the White House — and indeed, the manner in which this was made possible — gives the international community an opportunity to reflect on the questions that are confronting cyberspace. Three developments are noteworthy, foremost of which was the shadow cast by Russia on the US presidential campaign. In an operation previously unheard of in American shores, Russia hacked into the Democratic National Committee’s database and selectively leaked information that would eventually damage contender Hilary Clinton’s efforts and favour Donald Trump. With this act, Russia showed the world how influence operations and information warfare can disrupt even the most entrenched democratic processes. It also signalled the brazenness of new technologies; nothing is sacrosanct.

Elina Noor, in ‘Reconsidering cyber security’ and Sean Kanuck, in ‘Hacking democracy’write about Russia’s influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential elections, noting how attacks in the future will continue to affect integrity of information infrastructures.

The second issue deserving of attention was Hilary Clinton’s reliance on Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Big Data to make decisions during her campaign. For instance, confident in her team’s analytical model which predicted that it was not necessary to spend time on the ground in Michigan and Wisconsin, Clinton failed to address what might have been a key constituency. Analysts say this oversight contributed to her loss.

A third focal point was the role of social media: in his campaign, Trump relied heavily on Twitter and Facebook to reach out to his audience, effectively bypassing the traditional media of print and television. Importantly, through algorithmic tailoring and personalised news feeds, social media was also responsible for creating what is called “information echo chambers” and polarising voters in the process.

Since assuming office, Donald Trump has worked to influence the US’ digital policies and the government’s role in cyberspace. Trump’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which would have represented approximately 40 percent of global GDP and 25 percent of world exports, has imperiled the US’ influence over digital norms. These norms would arguably have improved e-commerce and standardised internet rights amongst its member states. Similarly, Trump’s nationalist leanings have created uncertainty over America’s immigration policy; for one, he is adamant to institute changes in the US’ H1-B Visa programme to limit the number of foreign employees in the US’ technology industries.

Along the same line, Trump has also signed a bill repealing the US’ Internet Service Provider privacy rules, which currently impose limits on how ISPs can use and sell customer data. Defenders of civil liberties believe it is a blow to the people’s privacy rights. Further, Trump’s appointment of one of the fiercest critics of the open-internet norm, Ajit Pai, as head of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has challenged the principles of net neutrality which were laid out only two years ago under Tom Wheeler’s Open Internet Order.

Another stakeholder in the ongoing conversation on cyberspace is China. As American hegemony continues to wane, China is offering alternatives and is working relentlessly to ensure that it has a role in defining the future of cyberspace. Tomorrow’s digital trade and the flow of bits and bytes may well be very different from the model envisaged by the creators of the internet.

In the first half of 2017, China announced its ambitious blueprint to connect Asia through a series of rail, road, port and energy infrastructure projects. Even before that, it was already at an advanced stage of being a key player in the manufacture of global digital goods.  According to McKinsey, China is the world’s largest e-commerce market, accounting for more than 40 percent of the value of e-commerce transactions worldwide. Mobile payments in China amount to approximately 50 times that of the US, fuelled by the widespread adoption of e-wallets across its cities. One in three of the world’s 262 unicorns are Chinese, making up 43 percent of the global value of these companies. In 2015, the Chinese government signed off on its “Made in China 2025” and “Internet Plus” initiatives that aim to digitise China’s economy by integrating artificial intelligence, robotics, and digital services into manufacturing processes.

As part of its efforts to take the lead in the digital arena, China is making it clear that the retreat of the Atlantic powers will be complemented by Chinese propositions on digital commons. A March 2015 white paper setting out the vision for the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) called for growth in digital trade and the expansion of communications networks to develop “an information silk road.” State-owned Chinese telecommunication companies are increasingly investing in Asian countries to develop digital infrastructure; even private players like ZTE are investing in fiber optic cables in countries like Afghanistan.

In 2016, China released its first ever “National Cyberspace Security Strategy” to set out its positions on cyberspace development and security. Interestingly, the strategy sees cyber security as “the nation’s new territory for sovereignty.” At the 2016 World Internet Conference in Wuzhen, President Xi Jingping declared, “We should respect the right of individual countries to independently choose their own path of cyberspace development, model of cyberspace regulation and Internet public policies.”

In characterising the internet as a fundamental domain of state control, China is challenging the long-held assumptions and principles that have governed the internet and have allowed it to proliferate over the past few decades.

The US’ apparent withdrawal from international engagement in cyberspace and China’s economic and political advance may well rewrite the rules of digital trade and openness in ways not envisaged by the internet’s inventors. Neither of these two actors, however, will unilaterally script this new story, given that the effects of digital networks in economic and social activity are now widespread and diffused. From the very beginning, the evolution of technology has defied prediction and delineation. As it becomes more ingrained in human life, technology itself will rewrite traditional notions of ethics and social contract. This new ‘machine conscience’ will result in fresh challenges for policymakers and technologists alike.

The rapid pace of innovation in AI is heralding a world that is keen on moving from governing through data to being governed by data. While these developments will have transformational effects on the economy, they will also challenge the basis of human autonomy and ethics. Hillary Clinton’s reliance on algorithmic decision-making during the US presidential elections has already offered us a glimpse into the inherent weaknesses of this new paradigm. As algorithms pervade every aspect of people’s lives, they will determine most personal choices. However, it is worrying that these developments are taking place at a time when it is still unclear how machines will replicate the social values and norms that human beings instinctively understand. This fear has prompted a fierce debate over the regulation of autonomous weapons, which are designed to be capable of making life-and-death decisions. Today, speculation is rife on what the future will look like when people’s decisions are, as one commentator put it, “more mathematical than inspirational.”

A future that is scripted through code, and not norms, may be cause for concern. As Vidisha Mishra and Madhulika Srikumar caution in ‘Gender bias in artificial intelligence’, algorithms written by humans should not reflect human biases and inequities. Instead, technology should be developed to empower, engage and enlighten. In ‘Vulnerability, dependency, and profitability in a digital universe’, Urvashi Aneja writes that people’s ever-increasing dependency on technology seems “unwise”, given the vulnerability of information infrastructures.

As the incumbent powers grapple with the changing dynamics of technology, emerging economies are gearing up to leverage it for the next billion users. Regulators are tackling the challenge of improving connectivity to harness the transformative potential of the internet. In ‘The Importance of the open internet in driving internet adoption and growth’, Michael Khoo and Peter Lovelock argue that governments in Asia need to ensure favourable market conditions and foster an open-internet environment that is non-discriminatory, neutral, and accessible.  Similarly, Amelia Andersdotter, in ‘Has the time come for less red-tape in Indian telecom?’, looks at the role of regulation in facilitating adoption. The piece describes the introduction (and eventual removal) of licence and registration requirements for public WiFi in Italy and the lessons that India might learn from that strategy.

In this respect, a parallel transformation that is equally significant is India’s digital payments explosion. Digital transactions in India have quadrupled in the past year, spurred in part by the demonetisation of 86 percent the country’s currency and, in part, from the impetus provided by the Aadhaar initiative. The Aadhaar platform that sought to increase access and assist in the provision of subsidies has mass-sourced efficiencies, cut down the cost of transacting online, and moved bigger populations into the mainstream, formal economy than any other policy in recent history.

The success in the adoption of the Aadhaar ecosystem can serve as a model for other emerging economies struggling with efficient delivery of services. Coupled with open application programming interface layers that allow private companies to utilise its biometric database in a secure manner, the Aadhaar ecosystem offers a unique model that has the potential to catalyse growth and innovation in digital economies around the world.

In turn, these developments have had the cascading effect of strengthening civil liberties and improving the security of cyberspace. In August this year, a nine-judge bench of the Indian Supreme Court unanimously ruled that privacy is a fundamental right under the Constitution, harmonising over 60 years of conflicting pronouncements and granting the strongest possible protections to people’s right to privacy. In fact, the Court has made specific references to informational privacy and the need to complement the right to privacy with strong data protection laws.

The Indian government, for its part, has established a 10-member expert committee to review existing data protection rules. These recommendations—likely to be tabled in the parliament later this year—can have the effect of modernising privacy protections and bringing them in line with international standards.

Governments in emerging economies should now go a step forward and make significant investments in newer technologies to give an additional spurt to their governance mechanism. Blockchain is one such technology. Originally seen as a financial innovation, blockchain’s potential is now being recognised in a wide array of industries such as land rights, defence, art, precious jewels, and music. This technology has the potential to address even more complex issues such as checking the proliferation of nuclear stockpiles. In ‘Licence in chains: Could media content be licensed through blockchains?’, Meghna Bal explores how this innovation could be used to facilitate a more transparent licensing scheme for artistic copyrights, allowing the industry to manage the challenges that come with large copyright societies.

In ‘Challenges for a new economy: the Fourth Industrial Revolution’, Logan Finucan describes how the so-called “Fourth Industrial Revolution” (4IR) will bring significant progress in productivity, such as in the use of advanced robotics and manufacturing techniques, the Internet of Things (IoT) and machine-to-machine (M2M) connections on a massive scale, autonomous vehicles, and new industrial materials, all powered by artificial intelligence (AI) and pervasive big data analytics.  Meanwhile, in ‘Applications and policy considerations for AI in cyber security and public services’, Ryan Johnson and Seha Yatim ponder the question of how to manage the complex interrelationships between these new technologies, as well as the disruption they are likely to cause.

As economies increasingly rely on new technologies, it will be critical for them to ensure the stability of cyberspace and the integrity of their networks. This will require cross-sectoral cooperation – including that with the private sector – fostered by mutual trust. Three contributions in this volume ponder the issues related to the interaction between the private and public spheres in administering security over the internet. Chelsey Slack, in ‘Tempering national and international tensions in cyberspace’,provides an outline of the global discourse on security in cyberspace and highlights the need for cooperation among different actors. In ‘The hybridisation of cyber security governance’, Dennis Broeders identifies the emergence of cyber security assemblages – made up of government agencies, transnational corporations and cyber security companies. Finally, Nikolas Ott and Hugo Zylberberg argue in ‘Addressing international security challenges while avoiding internet fragmentation’ for interoperable policy regulations.

In addition to cyber stability, an equally important task for states would be to manage the “real-world” effects of new technologies, which spill into offline considerations of security and prosperity. Technology is in the process of rewriting the nature of the relationship between individuals, states and businesses. Machine learning and AI will question dominant models of labour, economics and social stability. However, these very technologies have the capacity to usher in unprecedented innovation, growth and progress. As the next billion internet users emerge from Asia and Africa, governments around the world should explore technological solutions to expand the scope and effectiveness of their governance. But as the presidential elections in the United States and the rise of China indicate, there is enough evidence to guard against any positive and deterministic outcomes from technology. It is likely that new innovations are going to be political and politicised: no longer can evangelists sitting in the comfort of their offices in Silicon Valley claim to be neutral vendors of technology, selling their products for the public good. As technological effects on offline realities become more prominent,  state and non-state actors must be mindful of the effects of such rapid change on social structures. While technology can, and does, magnify existing faultlines between peoples and nations, it also offers a fleeting glimpse of greater harmony between humans, machines and states. The rules that will determine the nature of this relationship are still being written. The responsibility of all stakeholders is to ensure that new technologies do not lead to the creation of a world order that is haunted by the conflicts of the past, but rather of a new social contract that abandons the shackles of inequity and promises peace and progress.

To read the full issue, click here.


This is the time to face up to cyber threats

Samir Saran

The ICT supply chain in India is only as strong as its weakest link: the end user. If the user is from rural India, with a limited understanding of the devices and transactions she accesses, her device is a point of vulnerability.

 CyFy 2017, ICT, cyber threat, Aadhaar, cyberspace, risk, ledger technologies, Digital India, ecosystem, payment gateways, demonetisation, cryptocurrencies, Samir Saran
Crimes in cyberspace, by one estimate, now cost the global economy $445 billion a year. Cyber insecurity is now a global risk no different from the warming climate or forced displacement. Is such insecurity a business risk or a “public bad”? If the security of digital infrastructure is viewed as a business risk, who should mitigate it? Should states be responsible for the integrity of networks and data within their territories, failing which they will be classified as “risky” to do business in in the digital economy? Were cyber insecurity treated as a “public bad”, governments could justifiably conclude that vulnerabilities in one device or platform affect an entire ecosystem, and create a liability regime that shifts the burden on the private sector.

If the security of digital infrastructure is viewed as a business risk, who should mitigate it? Should states be responsible for the integrity of networks and data within their territories, failing which they will be classified as “risky” to do business in in the digital economy?

These issues are important to ponder as the Digital India programme and demonetisation encourage the rapid adoption of digital payments technologies. It is not only difficult to assess the “risk” of transacting in the digital economy, but also determine who such risks should be absorbed by. For instance, a high-end device may be able to offer security on the back of its tightly controlled supply chain, but what if an end user, by opening the door to a hidden exploit, compromised its operating system?

Three crucial trends will decisively influence the future of cyber security — the centralisation of data, the arrival of connected devices, and the rapid adoption of digital payments technologies. Centralised control over data can make access to databases easier and more vulnerable to attacks. The Internet of Things (IoT) ecosystem is set to explode, with more than 24 billion devices expected to be connected to the internet by 2019. The sheer scale, size and diversity of the IoT environment makes risk difficult to measure.

Perhaps the most important factor is the scale and speed at which digital payments have been adopted across the spectrum of transactions. Payment gateways work the same for all users irrespective of the volume or commodities/services transacted, but they are accessed on devices that vary greatly in their ability to protect data. How would insurers gauge the risk inherent in such a diversified market? Consider then, these key questions and conundrums.

Payment gateways work the same for all users irrespective of the volume or commodities/services transacted, but they are accessed on devices that vary greatly in their ability to protect data.

First, if cyberspace is a global commons, will the socialisation of “bad” follow the “privatisation of profits”?

Unlike the environment, the oceans or outer space, digital spaces are not discovered — they are created. Cyber insecurity has been made out to be a global threat but the fact remains that the economic gains from securing digital spaces still accrue to a few countries and corporations. Do developed markets have a common but differentiated responsibility to secure digital spaces? If it is the responsibility of all, can developing countries also get a share of the economic gains from electronic commerce?

Second, cybersecurity is a private service — how can we make it a public good?

Digital spaces are common to all, but the provision of their security is increasingly guaranteed by the private sector. This is in stark contrast to governance models in emerging markets, where the state underwrites law and order. How can the public and private sectors work together to provide this common good?

Third, India is moving towards security by identity, but many advanced economies believe security comes through anonymity. Are we on the wrong side of history?

Encryption is becoming the norm in advanced economies, as a result of which data is increasingly out of the reach of law enforcement agencies. On the other hand, India has moved towards biometric identification programmes that place a premium on identity. The “Aadhaar impulse” is driven by a requirement to target beneficiaries effectively, but without strong data protection regulations, the digital economy would be less than secure.

Fourth, if cash-based systems, ATMs and payment gateways are increasingly vulnerable to cyber-attacks, are “distributed ledger technologies” going to make governments adopt cryptocurrencies?

Blockchain and other technologies that “crowdsource” the authentication of online transactions using bitcoins are more difficult to target, because they are by their very nature, distributed ledgers. Will the increasing insecurity of the fintech ecosystem push us towards cryptocurrencies?

Fifth, cyber security is an expensive proposition in advanced economies, where the most sophisticated instruments are also assumed to be the safest. How can India apply its famed “frugal innovation” in this space, and protect the user while providing affordable access to the internet?

The ICT supply chain in India is only as strong as its weakest link: the end user. If the user is from rural India, with a limited understanding of the devices and transactions she accesses, her device is a point of vulnerability. If the device itself is “low-end”, which places a premium on cost over security, this forms a lethal mix that endangers the security of all users in the ecosystem. India cannot afford a false separation between access and security in digital spaces, as the qualitative nature of access will determine ICT security for a billion people.

Sixth, who determines the risk of transacting on the internet, and how?

If transactions in cyberspace will invariably carry an element of risk, who will guarantee them? The buyer, seller or intermediary? As in the case of shipping, will we see a form of cyber-insurance applied to cover the risk of malicious attacks online?

If transactions in cyberspace will invariably carry an element of risk, who will guarantee them? The buyer, seller or intermediary?

Developments in cyber security leads one to surmise that economies will soon be subject to a risk-assessment based on the integrity of their networks. Risk-based assessments offer predictive value and guarantees of stability to businesses, but they should not perpetuate inequities that exist offline.

Limited means to enhance cybersecurity in developing economies should not set back investments in the digital economy, which in turn create a vicious cycle rendering the overall ecosystem insecure. The international community must articulate ways in which such risks can be mitigated, and facilitate access in emerging markets to technology and finance that generate investments in cybersecurity.

This commentary originally appeared in Hindustan Times.