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Amid changing post-pandemic realities, India needs to be swift in identifying partners whom it can trust

Amid changing post-pandemic realities, India needs to be swift in identifying partners whom it can trust

We will see the rise of a New World Order driven by national interest, reliability of partners, and of course, economic factors. India has to use a “Gated Globalisation” framework to negotiate this change.

 Gated Globalisation, GDPR, Integrity, Partners, Pandemic, Big Tech, Regulations

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The COVID-19 vaccines are coming. And along with this sanjivani comes a new age of geopolitics. The vaccines are varied, with different pricing points and affordability. Nations have secured their vaccine supplies from countries and companies they trust, often by forging new alliances. The scepticism over the vaccines from China and Russia shows that trust is the operating word in the post-pandemic era — and it is not limited to the choice of vaccines.

As we enter the third decade of the 21st century, a multipolar world awaits us. The US and China — rivals for the top slot till the pandemic hit the world — will now have to contend with traditional and rising powers like the UK, France, India and Brazil. Each country will engage with others selectively, not in every arena. We will see the rise of a New World Order driven by national interest, reliability of partners, and of course, economic factors. India has to use a “Gated Globalisation” framework to negotiate this change.

The security landscape will continue to drive partnerships, but these will no longer be omnibus alliances. India is locked in a confrontation with China in the Himalayas. The US and its traditional allies are ramping up their presence in the Western Pacific. A new Great Game is underway in the Indo-Pacific where the Quad is emerging. The Middle East is in a deep churn as Israel and Arabs discover Abrahamic commonalities. Europe is caught in a struggle to retain its values amid the diversity it has acquired over the years.

The Gated Globalisation framework requires that India should protect its interests in these unsettled times. Strong fences are necessary, but so is the creation of new partnerships (like the Quad) based on trust and common interests. Gated Globalisation has no place for parlour games like “non-alignment”; it will test the tensile strength of “strategic autonomy”. The need for a new coalition was felt after Doklam and has become a necessity post-Ladakh: India needs friends in deed.

The Gated Globalisation framework requires that India should protect its interests in these unsettled times. Strong fences are necessary, but so is the creation of new partnerships (like the Quad) based on trust and common interests

Beyond security, like everybody else, India has to make partnership choices on trade, capital flows and the movement of labour. The WTO’s multilateral trading arrangements have frayed beyond repair. Whether it is RCEP in the Indo-Pacific, the new version of NAFTA called USMCA, or the reconfigured EU, countries will have to decide whether they belong inside these gated trading arrangements. India has chosen to stay out of RCEP and the UK has left the EU.

By imposing restrictions on trade with China, India faces restrictions on capital flows. But this does not preclude enhanced capital flows from new partners. To prevent inflow of illicit funds, India has barred capital from poorly-regulated jurisdictions. India’s capital account for investment is largely open while its current account is carefully managed. Similarly, while restricting debt flows, India is open for equity flows from friendly countries. Other nations have similar policies. By managing capital flows in this manner, countries have enabled tighter financial relationships within their gated communities while shutting out those who are inimical to their interests.

India’s global diaspora is now over 30 million and sends more through remittances ($80 billion per year) than foreign capital inflows. The pandemic-enforced work-from-home may see the creation of new pools of skilled workers, living in virtual gated communities, further enhancing income from jobs physically located elsewhere. Moreover, the Indian diaspora is now increasingly impacting policy in countries like the US, UK and Australia where it has contributed politicians and technocrats, innovators and influencers, billionaires and cricket captains.

The pandemic-enforced work-from-home may see the creation of new pools of skilled workers, living in virtual gated communities, further enhancing income from jobs physically located elsewhere

Finally, technology flows and standards will also define gated communities. The internet is already split between China and everyone else. The Great Firewall of China has shut out many of the big tech players like GoogleFacebook and Netflix. Instead, China has its Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent. With the advent of 5G technology, this split will get deeper and wider over issues of trust and integrity.

The EU-crafted General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is an excellent example of Gated Globalisation. The EU has set the terms of engagement; those who do not comply will be kept out. The Indian law on data protection that is currently being discussed follows a similar sovereign route. However, it remains to be seen whether these norms can checkmate China’s massive digital surveillance apparatus.

There are other emerging arenas that will likely become the focus of big power competition. China has moved in all possible directions to develop its global strategies. It has linked its national security interests with its Belt-and-Road Initiative and its debt programmes. It is offering a package deal of 5G technology with new telecom networks. China has learnt well from the US.

Amid these rapidly changing post-pandemic realities, India has to be swift in identifying partners whom it can trust and who will help protect and further its national interests. Ambiguity, lethargy and posturing will not do.


This commentary originally appeared in The Indian Express.

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

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On the Cusp of Digital History: Nine Lessons for the Future

On the Cusp of Digital History: Nine Lessons for the Future

Key takeaways from CyFy 2020 for the Fourth Industrial Revolution

s we step into a year of uncertainties after a disruptive year of the pandemic, there is only one universal certitude: 2021 will witness the increasing adoption of technology as innovation gathers extraordinary speed. Clearly, our digital future is exciting, but it is hazy too. There are galactic black holes; and even that which is visible is overwhelming.

Despite acknowledging the need for critical discourse, our pace of enquiry, examination and action has been lethargic and out of step with the motivations of coders hardwiring our future through soft interventions. They are changing economies, societies, politics and, indeed, the very nature of humanity at an astonishing speed and with far-reaching consequences.

Nations that effectively respond to the advent of the Digital Era will be in the vanguard of the Fourth Industrial Revolution and will emerge stronger as the 21st century approaches high noon. Others will suffer the adverse consequences of the coming digital disruptions.

At the turn of the decade, Delhi hosted a stellar set of thinkers and speakers at the annual CyFy conference organised by the Observer Research Foundation, which focused on technology, security and society. Here are nine takeaways from the debates and discussions that threw up a kaleidoscope of scintillating ideas.

1. CHINA’S DIGITAL VICTORY PARADE

hat the US accomplished in the 20th century, China has set out to achieve in the 21st. The first takeaway from the CyFy debates is that China’s surge will continue, and it will profoundly change the world order. The US and its partners are witnessing the inexorable rise of an authoritarian digital power with the COVID-19 pandemic emboldening

THE US AND ITS PARTNERS ARE WITNESSING THE INEXORABLE RISE OF AN AUTHORITARIAN DIGITAL POWER… CHINA’S SURGE WILL CONTINUE, AND IT WILL PROFOUNDLY CHANGE THE WORLD ORDER.

Beijing to tighten its surveillance and suppression networks—bolstered by big data, facial recognition, et al.

The China Electronics Technology Group Corporation (CETC), a defence contractor, for instance, pitches such future applications as detecting ‘abnormal behaviour’ on surveillance cameras or among online streamers. These applications intimate such detections to law enforcement agencies.[i] Several regimes around the world are attracted to these Chinese offerings, which enable them to control their citizens.

Meanwhile, the old Atlantic Consensus is in total disarray. Europe is intent upon carving out its niche in emerging technologies while promoting new technology champions to challenge American tech dominance. After taking over the European Union presidency, Germany has called for the expansion of digital sovereignty as the leitmotif of EU’s digital policy.[ii] A new Digital Services Act may fundamentally alter intermediary liability and mark a new milestone in digital rights and freedoms.[iii]

Across the Atlantic, the US has made its fear of China Tech apparent but is yet to initiate a coherent effort to build an influential digital alliance as a sustained response to China’s relentless digital expansionism. Which brings us to the central geopolitical question: Can the US and Atlantic nations, currently marred by divisions and domestic disquiet, get their act together to respond to this emergence? Authoritarian tech is at the gates: Does the West have the resolve to respond? Will a new Administration in Washington, DC herald a new and meaningful approach? Or will America continue to turn inwards?

China will not offer any negotiated space. Beijing’s offer will be binary, so will be the outcomes. It is, therefore, imperative for a club of technology-savvy countries to come together if liberalism is to be preserved in our digital century.

2. END OF MULTILATERALISM AND THE RISE OF CLUBS OF STATES

o say that the international order is failing and floundering is not to state anything startlingly new; it’s only to underscore the bleakness of the global reality. However, like the proverbial silver lining, there is a degree of optimism around the role and centrality of smaller groupings. Regional partnerships, alliances of democracies, and plurilateral arrangements between nations with focused engagements and specific purpose platforms are seen to be important in these turbulent times. This is best exemplified by Australia, India and Japan—who with an eye towards China and propelled by their shared interest in a free, fair, inclusive, non-discriminatory and transparent trade regime—are banding together for a Supply Chain Resilience Initiative.[iv]

These small groupings, built around shared but limited objectives, are dying multilateralism’s lifeline. The Year of the Pandemic and its resultant disruptions have left the world with few options. One of them is to begin rebuilding multilateralism with smaller groups of countries with aligned interests. Hopefully, over time, this will lead to an efficient, inclusive international order.

India, Japan and Australia have taken on the responsibility abdicated by the US of building a resilient, vibrant, secure technology network in the Indo-Pacific. The role of the EU, ASEAN (more difficult due to deep divisions) and democracies in the Indo-Pacific in defending and strengthening norms and laws associated with technology and politics was elaborated loudly and clearly at CyFy.

States matter and the leadership of individual nations will have to drive the global arrangements that will best serve this century. While dialogue with geopolitical adversaries remains critical, meaningless consensus-driven multilateral approaches are not viable in a world fundamentally fractured along political, economic and ideological fault lines. We need action, not pious declarations. Given the pace at which emerging technologies are evolving, organisations like the UN are too slow, unwieldy and politically compromised to have any significant impact.

3. GLITCH IN GLOBALISATION

n the post-COVID-19 era, globalisation as we have known it will be in tatters, yet decoupling will be more difficult than before. There is a simplistic assumption that you can decouple your digital world from the real world. This is not so. If you exclude entities from your digital platforms, it will be difficult to sustain traditional trade in goods and services with them. Commerce and connectivity of the future will have a different texture.

As economic growth, national identities and digital technologies collide, “Gated Globalisation” will be the new mantra. With interdependence no longer fashionable, supply chains will be shaped by rising national security concerns. Increasingly, cross-border flows of data, human capital and emerging technologies are viewed as vulnerabilities. A focus on autonomy and indigenous capabilities has accompanied growing incidents of cross-border cyber operations and cyberattacks.

Commerce may be conditioned on norms along the lines of what the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) seeks to do with the digital economy. The Blue Dot Network and supply chain initiatives may all end up creating layers of permissions and permits that will create toll plazas on digital freeways. The digital domain was built on the assumption of hyper interconnectedness. Will it be able to grow with mushrooming policy barriers?

4. UNCHARTED TERRITORY: BETWEEN TECHNOLOGY AND STATE

new and fascinating dynamic is rapidly emerging between democracies and technologies, raising an interesting question: If a democratic state tames technologies, can democracy survive? This question has been posed by Marietje Schaake, the International Policy Director at the Stanford Cyber Policy Center.[v] Technology is being co-opted into a ‘techno-nationalist’ narrative: The melding of a country’s national interest with its technological capabilities while excluding ‘others’. This techno-nationalist narrative often emanates from tech giants who are increasingly speaking in the state’s protectionist language. Mark Zuckerberg’s written statement ahead of US Congressional anti-trust hearings was couched in the language of protecting the core American values of openness and fairness, as opposed

IF A DEMOCRATIC STATE TAMES TECHNOLOGIES, CAN DEMOCRACY SURVIVE? THE COROLLARY TO THAT IS EQUALLY TRUE AND PROMPTS ANOTHER QUESTION: CAN DEMOCRACIES SURVIVE IF THEY DO NOT REGULATE TECHNOLOGIES?

to China’s (authoritarian) vision.[vi]

The corollary to that is equally true and prompts another question: Can democracies survive if they do not regulate technologies? The isolating and polarising effects of social media, for instance, have already resulted in a slew of analysts chanting the dirge for democracy.[vii] The answers to these questions are unclear, but it is certainly true that the protection of the public sphere, the integrity of political regimes, and the robustness of conversations must be common aspirations should we want democracy to survive and strengthen.

Be it regulations, education, incentives, ethics or norms, we will have to dig deeper into our toolbox to come up with answers that would allow this to happen. Currently, the negative impacts of technology on our evolving and fractured societies are threatening to overwhelm its promise and potential. Can a new regulatory compact emerge that negotiates the digital ethics for corporations, communities and governments? This decade will witness an unspoken contest over writing this new code of ethics. It remains to be seen whose code will prevail and, more importantly, for what purpose.

5. UNACCOUNTABLE TECH AND CORPORATE BOARDROOMS

e cannot overlook the changes that the relationship between big companies, technology and societies has undergone. If successive anti-trust actions in the US, EU, Australia, India and elsewhere are any indication,[viii] accountable boardrooms are now an expectation and will soon be a reality; the shape it will take will be defined by the debates taking place around the world. We can be certain that in the coming years, corporate governance is not going to be the same.

Large companies, having dominance and influence, will need to be more responsive to the communities they serve. The blueprint of new corporate governance cannot but be influenced by the needs of the locality; the nature of the framework will have to be contextual and culturally sensitive. Since mammoth corporations determine our very agency and choice, it is part of their fiduciary duty to ensure that the interests of the company and the community are ethically aligned.

Outside corporate boardrooms, we cannot ignore the role of coders or programmers in Bengaluru, Silicon Valley, Tel Aviv and other tech hubs. As we become increasingly reliant on software, can we let coders be the new cowboys of the Wild West without any accountability? As we get further entangled in the intricate web of algorithms, it has become clear that we need to demystify them. No more black box responses, no more unaccountable algorithms. What we need are programmers who are held responsible for the impact their codes make on people’s lives. We need algorithms that are not only transparent but also seen to be so.

6. THE PANDEMIC & DIGITAL SOCIETIES

he pandemic has made us reassess our approach to life and behaviour. We consume, we communicate, and we integrate using technology. Nearly a year on, COVID-19 has not only furthered technology’s invasion of our lives but also brought to the fore new realities, especially regarding privacy. The deepening concern over privacy is intertwined with the change in the ownership of data. The pandemic provided the pretext to alter the role played by big corporations and the control of the state over technological devices, products and services.[ix]

The digitalisation of our day-to-day lives may enable an unprecedented level of personalised oversight over individual behaviour. In its mildest form, this can be ‘libertarian paternalism’, a nudging predicated on the belief that individual choices are rarely made on the basis of complete information and are instead a product of psychological biases. At the other end of the spectrum, the ‘gamification’ of citizenship under this new paradigm would be the ultimate realisation of the Hobbesian social contract, whereby the Leviathan would be entrenched in every aspect of citizens’ lives.

In order to retain the ownership of data and individual autonomy, all these changes must be accompanied by the strengthening of our resolve to defend individual choice, freedom and rights by formulating adequate laws that would ensure that the values we create serve us, the people.

7. REWRITING THE SOCIAL CONTRACT

he world needs a new social contract—a digital social contract. The pandemic has thrown the old workplace order into a state of flux, thereby, reopening the debate surrounding the provision of the three Ps: Paycheck, protection and purpose to individuals. The equivalent of 475 million full-time jobs vanished in the second quarter of 2020[x] and many others found themselves without health insurance and other benefits typically linked to work contracts at the greatest time of their need. To ‘build back better’, the new order is being shaped by new terms of contract and employment, concepts of social protection and minimum wage for all, and the altered role of the state, big tech and individuals. The global shift towards virtual workspaces also provides an opportunity to induct a more diverse work force, especially individuals from historically marginalised communities. However, we need to take note of the challenges that might accompany these changes—such as ensuring safe, inclusive digital workspaces, keeping pace with ever-changing technology, meeting the demand for human skills, and coping with the displacement of jobs. As we move to a more ‘virtual first’ work environment, we need to make sure that nobody is left behind.

Meaningful engagement with vulnerable communities necessarily involves outreach by governments as well as large technology firms, both of whom have benefited from the data of these communities. It is, therefore, the responsibility of both to build bridges with the communities that would be most vulnerable to the disruptive impact of the technologies they build and benefit from. We must take advantage of this moment to forge technology that will be in service of humanity—taking ‘people-centered innovation’ from a buzzword to actual practice.

8. OUTLASTING THE VIRUS: INFODEMIC AND I

n intense battle is being waged against the Infodemic, which is running parallel to the battle against the Pandemic. Misinformation, the darkest shade of grey in the Chrome Age, is now being used to destabilise businesses and political systems, and dissolve the social cohesion shared by individuals. “Misinformation costs lives”,[xi] and the Infodemic has led to uncountable preventable deaths.

NO SINGLE AGENT CAN EVER ENSURE THE INTEGRITY OF THE GLOBAL INFORMATION SYSTEM. THE ANSWER, THEREFORE, LIES IN THE COMING TOGETHER OF ALL THE THREE IMPORTANT ACTORS—THE STATE, BIG TECH AND THE PUBLIC.

No amount of digital distancing is helping curb the spread of fake news. This emergence of a highly polarised information system should be effectively countered by a new guarantor of the public domain. No single agent can ever ensure the integrity of the global information system. The answer, therefore, lies in the coming together of all the three important actors—the state, big tech and the public.

The state should help denounce disinformation and simultaneously promote high quality content. Big tech can devise algorithms to filter out such misinformation, curtail the financial incentive acquired through it and display a higher sense of responsibility. Indeed, if platforms can display the same energy and responsiveness they did during the US elections in other jurisdictions, we may have some hope for a tenable solution.

Finally, the public should expand their information base by incorporating different sources of information, reading before posting on social media, and exposing and reporting fake news. It is only through the realisation of collective responsibility that we can hope to find a ‘vaccine’ for the Infodemic.

9. #TECHFORGOOD – A RAY OF HOPE

n a gloomy landscape of various shades of grey, we are at last beginning to see some light and some white. The emergence of a technology moment where communities are beginning to find their voices and change the course of their future, provides a glimmer of hope. Across the world, especially in Asia and Africa, people are discovering, nurturing and shaping new aspirations and goals for themselves by using technology. The African Union highlighted the need to diversify, develop and assert ownership over its digital society and economy.[xii] Community data has transformed from a fringe idea to a mainstream policy debate, receiving a nod, for instance, in India’s Non-Personal Data Governance Framework.[xiii]

Even as the pandemic upended our lives, we saw governments deploying technology for the greater social good; we saw businesses respond to it with extreme ingenuity; and we also saw women seizing this moment and retaining agency.

The post-pandemic era offers us an opportunity to build a more diverse and inclusive digital order. We can, and must, redefine diversity and support minorities and women to play a key role as a new world emerges from the debris of the war on COVID-19. The world today once again stands on the cusp of history. It cannot afford to fail in laying a new foundation which is free of the of the frailties of the past.


[i] “What footage do Public Security Bureaus capture every day? The answer will shock you!”, Taihe, January 10, 2019.

Translated by Jeffrey Ding: https://docs.google.com/document/d/13QqWIFAhNsMnV9uEAc1jK6IBjMzy3c_D_75
w7wTcnmc/edit#heading=h.xcykam

Original Mandarin: https://mp.weixin.qq.com/s/ir3RR6TfcJ_vgBche6LS3g?fbclid=IwAR2x9oqPS6GxbFewbMm8TlVzwy-M8Eee0oI3Gplrn-BV6B2_VLhVYUpLD7g

[ii] “Together for Europe’s Recovery: Programme for Germany’s Presidency of the Council of the European Union”, German Foreign Office, July 2020.

[iii] “Digital: The EU must set the standards for regulating online platforms, say MEPs”, European Parliament, October 20, 2020.

[iv] “Australia-India-Japan Economic Ministers’ Joint Statement on Supply Chain Resilience”, Ministry of Economy, Trade and Investment of Japan, September 1, 2020.

[v] Stanford University School of Engineering, “Marietje Schaake: Can democracy survive in a digital world?”, YouTube, September 24, 2020.

[vi] “HEARING BEFORE THE UNITED STATES HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES COMMITTEE ON THE JUDICIARY Subcommittee on Antitrust, Commercial, and Administrative Law July 29, 2020: Testimony of Mark Zuckerberg Facebook, Inc.”, House of Representatives .

[vii] Cass Sunstein, #Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media (Princeton University Press: April 2018) Mauktik Kulkarni, “Techies Are Ruining Our Democracies. It Is High Time We Held Them Accountable.”, The Wire, July 14, 2019. Jonathan Haidt and Tobias Rose-Stockwell, “The Dark Psychology of Social Networks”, The Atlantic, December 2019.

[viii] “Justice Department Sues Monopolist Google For Violating Antitrust Laws”, US Department of Justice, October 20, 2020.

Antitrust/Cartel Cases: 40411 Google Search (AdSense)”, European Commission.

COMPETITION COMMISSION OF INDIA Case No. 07 of 2020”, Competition Commission of India, November 2020.

[ix] “Tracking the Global Response to COVID-19”, Privacy International

[x] “ILO Monitor: COVID-19 and the world of work. Sixth edition”, International Labour Organisation, September 23, 2020.

[xi] “Managing the COVID-19 infodemic: Promoting healthy behaviours and mitigating the harm from misinformation and disinformation”, Joint statement by WHO, UN, UNICEF, UNDP, UNESCO, UNAIDS, ITU, UN Global Pulse, and IFRC, September 23, 2020.

[xii] “The Digital Transformation Strategy for Africa (2020-2030)”, African Union.

[xiii] “Report by the Committee of Experts on Non-Personal Data Governance Framework”, Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (2020).

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If the EU fails, we can say goodbye to the liberal order

If the EU fails, we can say goodbye to the liberal order

To what extent is Europe important for the future of the world order? Europeans feel like they count less and less on the world scene.

china hegemony, Captain America, Middle Kingdom, Modernity, Weapons, hierarchical, medieval, mindset, indo-pacific

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Eastern Focus: To what extent is Europe important for the future of the world order? Europeans feel like they count less and less on the world scene.

Samir Saran: Europe is, paradoxically, the single most important geography that will define the future trajectory of the global order. If Europe remains rooted in its fundamental principles – of being democratic, open, liberal, plural, supporting a transparent and open market economy, defending rule of law, the rights of individuals, freedom of speech – the world will have a chance of being liberal. If the European Union is split between the north and south, east and west and we see a large part of it deciding to give up on the Atlantic project and align with more authoritarian regimes – which is quite tempting, due to the material side attached to the choice – that will be the end of the Atlantic project. An EU that is not united in its ethics is an EU that will eventually write its own demise. How will Europe swing? Will it be an actor, or will it be acted upon?

I have the belief that post-pandemic EU, as a political actor, will see a new lease of life. A new political EU may be born as the pandemic ends. Unless that happens, I believe this is the end of the European Union itself. It is a do it or lose it moment. Unless Europe becomes strategically far more aggressive, far more expansive, aware of its role, obligations and destiny you will see an EU that fades. For me, the most important known unknown is the future of Europe. Will the EU hold? Will the 17+1 become more powerful than the EU 27? Which way will the wind blow on the continent? Will it really be the bastion of the liberal order or will the liberal order be buried in Europe?

The Indo-Pacific is the frontline for European safety

EF: We’ve been used to only existing as part of the transatlantic relationship. In the past few decades, Europe has never really seen itself as an individual actor, but rather in coordination with the US. That is something that is starting to shake now. Do you see Europe acting on its own terms, as a global actor, in the positive case in which the member states do get their act together? Are we rather going to continue to act together with the US? Or find some other partners?

SS: I suspect that with Brexit, you might see a far more cohesive EU, organised around the French military doctrine and French military posture. With an absent UK, I have the feeling that the political cohesion of the EU will increase and that the EU will be far more coordinated in its approach to the geostrategic and geopolitical questions. France realises that by itself, without the size of the EU, it might not be a significant actor. A French military presence will be compelling only if it acts on behalf of the EU.

Europe believed that it could change China by engaging with them, however I suspect China will change the EU before the EU changes China.

In terms of other partners, Europe has made one error. Europe believed that it could change China by engaging with them, however I suspect China will change the EU before the EU changes China. The mistake that the EU makes is that it imagines that an economic and trading partnership will create a degree of political consensus in Beijing. Nevertheless, Beijing is not interested in politics, but in controlling European markets.

What Europe should do is to consider the importance of India. If the European continent needs to retain its plural characteristics, South Asia is the frontline. What is happening today between India and China is actually a frontline debate on the future of the world order. The Himalayan standoff is just the first of the many that are likely to happen unless this one is responded to. If China is able to change the shape of Asia and recreate the hierarchical Confucian order, don’t be surprised if the fate of Europe will follow the same path. If Europe needs to feel secure in its own existence it needs to create new strong local partnerships – with India, Australia, Indonesia, Japan. The EU needs to see itself as an Indo-Pacific power. The Indo-Pacific is the frontline for European safety. If the Indo-Pacific was to go the other way, the mainland is not going to be safe.

EF: What do you think about the CEE’s role in the new emerging order? We see an increased competition for hearts and minds here. How could India help, in an environment of increased competition and active engagement of China in this space?

SS: The Central Europeans are going to be the centre of attention for many actors. China will buy their love, America will give military assurances and so on. In the near future, many actors will realise the importance of the CEE, simply because it is these countries that will decide which way Europe finally turns. In some ways they are the swing countries, the swing nations that are going to decide whether Europe remains loyal to the ideals of its past or decides to have a new path. CEE countries are in many ways the decisive countries.

CEE has two important options and two important pressures. The options: will they be able to create a consensus (between the Chinese, the Russians, the Old Europe and the new countries like India) or will they be an arena for conflict? Can we create a ‘Bucharest consensus’, where the East and the West, North and the South build a new world order and the new rules for the next 7 decades? If you play it wrong you might become the place where the powers contest, compete and create a mess.

There are also two pressures. Firstly, there is an economic divide in Europe. You are at a lower per capita income, you need to find investment funds for the infrastructure, employment, livelihoods and growth, which results in an economic pressure that needs to be tackled. Therefore, Europe will have to decide if the provenence of the money matters. Does it matter if it is red or green? Does it matter if they come from the West or the East? That is one pressure that needs consideration. How do you meet your own aspirations, while being political about it?

The other pressure is the road you want to take. How do you envisage the future? Is it going to be a future built on cheap manufacturing? Being an advanced technological society, are you going to be the rule-maker of theFourth Industrial Revolution or its rule-taker? Secondly, the nature of the economic growth that you are investing in becomes another pressure. This is the second choice that the CEE will have to make. In that sense, I believe that India becomes an actor. As we have experienced this in the past 20 years, we are one of the swing nations that could decide the nature of the world order, thus we may share this experience with you. We have also decided that we don’t want to be a low-cost manufacturing economy like China, but rather a value-creating economy, building platforms. Even if we have a small economic size, we have a billion-people digital platforms, digital cash system, AI laboratories and solutions.

What is happening today between India and China is actually a frontline debate on the future of the world order. If China is able to change the shape of Asia and recreate the hierarchical Confucian order, don’t be surprised if the fate of Europe will follow the same path.

As we move into theFourth Industrial Revolution, the tyranny of distance between Europe and India disappears. We don’t have to worry about trade links, land routes and shipping lines. Bits and bites can flow quite rapidly. As we move to the age of 3D printing, to the age of quantum computing, of big data and autonomous systems, the arena where we can cooperate becomes huge.

India gives Europe room to manoeuvre, room to choose. When it comes to choosing, besides the traditional American and Chinese propositions, there is also a third one – India, a billion-people market.

EF: Do you expect that there is going to be a shift in the EU toward reshoring and ensuring that manufacturing is not captive to Chinese interests or to Chinese belligerence?

SS: I think that we are going to see a degree of reshoring everywhere. It is not going to be only a European phenomenon. Political trust is going to become important. Political trust and value-chains are going to affect one another. Countries are going to be more comfortable with partners who are like-minded. They don’t have to agree on everything, but they should be on the same ideological and political spectrum.

There are two reasons for this. One is the pandemic that we are currently facing and in a way it exposed the fragility of globalisation as we know it. The hippie and gypsy styles of globalisation are over. I think that people are going to make far more political decisions. The second is that as we start becoming more digitalised societies, individual data and individual space are going to be essential, thus you don’t want those data sets to be shared with countries whose systems you don’t trust. Value is going to increasingly emerge through intimate industrial growth, far more intimate in character – it is going to be about the organs inside your body, it is going to be about the personal experiences, about how we live, transact, date or elect. They are all intimate value chains. The intimate value-chains will require far greater degree of thought than the mass production factories that created value in the XXth century.

The EU may be setting the format for managing our contested globalisation

EF: You mention the rising value of trust, as a currency even. In Europe, we often point out that we are an alliance based on values. But even our closest partner, the US seems to be moving in a much more transactional direction, let alone China and others. You are describing a worldview that is relying increasingly on shared values, at least some capacity to negotiate some common ground, on predictability, whereas in many ways it seems that things are moving in the opposite direction, a much more Realpolitik one. Is this something that is going to last?

SS: The pandemic has brought this trend to the fore. People are going to appreciate trust and value systems more than ever. But I think this was inevitable. If you would recall, India used to be quite dismissive of the EU, calling it “an Empire of gnomes”, with no strategic clout. But if you look at the last two years, India has started to absorb, and in a sense to propose solutions that the EU itself has implemented in the past. India came up with an investment infrastructure framework in the Indo-Pacific that should not create debt trap diplomacy, should create livelihoods, respect the environment and recognise the rights and sovereignty of the people. India came up with this when it saw that the Chinese were breaking all rules and all morality to capture industrial infrastructure spaces. The Americans under Donald Trump also came up with the Blue Dot American project for the Indo-Pacific – a framework that was based on values. Whenever you have to deal with a powerful political opponent you throw the rule book in there. If you don’t want to go to war with them, you will have to manage them through a framework of laws, rules and regulations. The value systems are a very political choice. They are practices and choices enshrined in our constitutions and foundational documents. Therefore, dismissing values and norms as being less political or less muscular is wrong. The EU, “the empire of gnomes” that was much criticised for the first two decades as weak and not geopolitical enough, may well become an example for other countries. If it remains solvent, a vibrant union, and if it is not salami-sliced by the Chinese in the next decade, the EU may well be setting the format for managing our contested globalisation.

This pandemic is the first global crisis where Captain America is missing

EF: How does India see the future of the Quad? Usually the Quad is associated with a certain vision of the Indo – Pacific, free from coercion and open to unhindered navigation and overflight. Are we going to see the emergence of a more formal geopolitical alignment or even an alliance to support a certain vision about Asia?

SS: The Quad is going to acquire greater importance in the coming years. It is going to expand beyond its original 4 members. We’ve already seen South Korea and the Philippines joining the discussion recently. We are going to see greater emphasis by all members doing a number of manoeuvres, projects and initiatives together. The next 5 years will be the age of the Quad. The pandemic started this process. I see three areas where the Quad can be absolutely essential.

One is in delivering global public goods, keeping the sea lines open and uncontested so that trade, energy and people can move with a degree of safety and stability. In a sense, I see the Quad replacing the Pax Americana that was underwriting stability in certain parts of the world.

The second area is going to be around infrastructure and investments in certain parts of the world. I see the Quad grouping many initiatives that will allow for big investments in countries which currently have only one option – China. The Quad will be able to spawn a whole new area of financial, infrastructure and technology instruments closer to the needs of Asians, South Asian, East African, West Asians including the Pacific Islands. The Quad will be the basis of this kind of relationships in the upcoming years.

Thirdly and most importantly, the role of the Quad will be to ensure that we won’t reach a stage where we have to reject the Chinese. None of us wants a ‘No China’ world, because all of us benefit from China’s growth and economic activities. Many of us have concluded that the only way to keep the Chinese honest in their engagements, economical or political, is to be able to put together a collective front in front of them, not negotiate individually. The EU has done that longer than anyone else and that’s why the Chinese don’t like the EU and apply a ‘divide and conquer’ methodology to get more favourable deals. The Quad is in many ways an expression of that reality, as well of that the middle powers in Asia and Pacific (Indonesia, Australia and Japan) will have to work together, sometimes without the Americans, to negotiate new terms of trade and new energy, or technological arrangements. The Quad in many ways is also the ‘make China responsible’ arrangement, an accountability framework which will keep the Chinese honest and responsible actors in the global system.

The next 5 years will be the age of the Quad. The Quad in many ways is also the ‘make China responsible’ arrangement, an accountability framework which will keep the Chinese honest and responsible actors in the global system.

EF: Do you also see this trend extending into the political sphere in a kind of collective endeavour both in Asia (through the Quad) and in the West (starting with Europe perhaps) to build a new kind of world order? Do you feel that this ‘middle powers concert’ is one possible way to go? Or do you believe that we are going to be disappointed, as we were by the BRICs, when some of the members drowned in their own domestic problems? 

SS: We are part of a world that doesn’t have any superpowers. The last superpower was America, and that ended with the financial crisis ten years ago. Ever since, we have been literally in a world which had quasi-superpowers like the US, to some extent Russia, the Chinese, but there was no real hegemon that could punish people for bad behaviour and reward people for good behaviour.

Some of the most interested actors in the Indo-Pacific in the last two to three years happened to be the UK and France. A few years ago, they sensed that if they want to be relevant in the future world order, as it is built and as it emerges, they need to be present in the debates that are unfolding in this part of the world. Both partnered with India – to do military manoeuvres, to create maritime domain awareness stations, to invest in infrastructure and to create clearly the beginnings of a new order that might emerge from here. We will have to create these coalitions to be able to get things done.

The pandemic tells us something which is also quite tragic. Ever since I was born I have never witnessed a global crisis that did not have America as a response leader. This pandemic is the first global crisis where Captain America is missing. What makes it even more complicated is that the successor to Captain America has caused the crisis. Hence, you have the old power, which is absent and engrossed in its own domestic realities, and the new power that has been irresponsible and has put us in this position. Both the previous incumbent and the new contender don’t have the capacity to take action in this world by themselves. This tells us that building a coalition of middle powers is absolutely essential. It is not a luxury, it is not a choice. This is something concerning our own existential reasons that we must invest in.

EF: Do you see this coalition of middle powers as some sort of a ’league of democracies’? It is a concept that was previously advanced by John McCain and now Joe Biden is embracing as his overarching framework for foreign policy. Do you see the potential for creating this league of democracies as some sort of manager and defender of the liberal international order?

SS: I think it is inevitable. Technology is so intimate that we are not going to trust our data with folks we have a suspicion about. Thus, it is this reality that makes this coalition of democracies and like-minded countries inevitable. Even if we may never call it that, it is going to become that. We are going to notice countries engaging in these intimate industries with others who are similar, who are like-minded, who have similar worldviews. Still, this process may take longer than we have. We do not have the luxury of time, because we are going to be destroyed, divided, decimated and sliced in the meantime.

A few countries will have to take leadership – either the French, the UK, the EU itself, or India, or all of them. Until there is an agreement on a big vision for the new world order we must agree to an interim arrangement and have to create a bridging mechanism that takes us from the turmoil of the first two decades of this century to a more stable second half of the century. We don’t want to go through two world wars in order to achieve this unity, as we did in the past century. We need to have some other mechanisms that will prevent conflict, but preserve ethics.

In this context the EU-India and the CEE-India projects are essential. It is us who have the most at stake, because our future is on the line. The more the world is in turmoil, the less we will be able to grow sustainably. It is our interest to create and invest in institutions and informal institutions that could preserve a degree of values and allow for stability.

Such a coalition reuniting countries from Central Europe, Western Europe and from Asia (such as India, Australia, Japan) will normalise the behaviour of both America and China. I do not think that they behaved responsibly in the last few years – one because of its democratic insanity, and the second because of its absolutist medieval mindset. Along these lines, you have democratic failure at one end and a despotic emergence at the other end. We need to ensure that democracy will survive and that the middle powers will be able to normalise this moment.

EF: What is Russia’s role in all this? Is Russia going to be on our side? Or is it going to be on China’s – considering that sometimes they seem to, although their agendas perhaps align only when it is opportune for both of them?

SS: Russia has an odd reality. It is a country that has a very modest GDP (the second smallest within the BRICs) but it is also a country that is possibly the second most powerful military force in the world. A big military actor with a very small economic size. This is creates a policy asymmetry in Moscow. It has very little stakes in global economic stability or global economic progress, but it has huge clout in the political consequences of developments around the world. The Russians have somehow to be mainstreamed into our economic future. Unless Russia is going to have an active role in the Fourth Industrial Revolution or have real benefits, their economy will stay in the 20th century and therefore their politics is going to reflect a 20th century mindset. If they are included in the economic policies of the future, their politics will evolve too. It is not an easy transition. Nevertheless I would argue that the Russians have to be given more room in European thinking so that they don’t feel boxed into the Chinese corner. The last thing that we should be thinking of is giving Russia no option but to partner with the Chinese. Perhaps the immediate neighbours (the CEE) will not be open to a partnership, taking into account their political history. But countries like India would be able to offer space for manoeuvre. In that sense, India could be a market, a consumer, an investor in the Russian economic future and the CEE-India partnership could become important. Can we together play a role in normalising that relationship? Can we give the Russians an option other than China? If Russia’s economic future is linked to ours, it doesn’t have to be in the Chinese corner. The Russians are not the Chinese. The Chinese take hegemony to a whole new level; the Russians have this odd asymmetry that defines their place in the world. This asymmetry should be addressed with new economic possibilities and incentives.

The rise of the Middle Kingdom

EF: We’ve been discussing how to react to a world that is increasingly defined by China. But what are China’s plans? What does China want? 

SS: I do not know their plans, but I can tell you how I see China’s emergence, from New Delhi. I define it through what I call the 3M framework.

Firstly, I see them increasingly becoming the Middle Kingdom. Chinese exceptionalism is defined in those terms. They believe they have a special place in the world – between heaven and earth. They will continue to defy the global rules and they will not allow the global pressures to alter their national behaviour or domestic choices.  So we will see the first M, the Middle Kingdom, emerge more strongly in the years ahead.

This pandemic is the first global crisis where Captain America is missing. What makes it even more complicated is that the successor to Captain America has caused the crisis.

Secondly, this Middle Kingdom will make use of modern tools. They see Modernity as a tool, not as an experience. In that sense they use it to strengthen the Middle Kingdom, not to reform and evolve. Such tools include digital platforms, the control of media and a modern army with modern weapons to control and dominate.

Thirdly, the final M deals with a Medieval mindset. They are a Middle Kingdom with Modern tools and a Medieval mindset that believes in a hierarchical world. We are a world which has moved away from the hierarchies of the past. The world is more flat, people have equal relationships. The Chinese don’t see it like that. They see a hierarchical world, where countries must pay tribute to them. They sometimes use the Belt and Road Initiative to create the tribute system or the debt trap diplomacy to buy sovereignty. Likewise, they use other tools to ensure the subordination of the countries they deal with.

These three Ms are defining the China of today.


This interview appeared in The Eastern Focus

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In a new world, why old Europe matters

In a new world, why old Europe matters

EU and UK are waking up to the Chinese threat, even as the convergence with India is growing

 In a new world, why old Europe matters

While Covid-19 has disrupted societies, it has also brought greater clarity for individuals and nations. The European Union (EU) and the United Kingdom (UK) are two political geographies that may be experiencing this and are certainly at an inflection point. In this context, foreign secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla’s visit to Paris, Berlin and London gains salience. That he has chosen Europe for his first Covid-19-era visit outside the neighbourhood suggests that New Delhi has sensed the importance of this moment.

At a recent event, external affairs minister, S Jaishankar, articulated why his ministry continued to invest time and energy in the relationship with Europe. He explained Europe’s importance for India’s most important imperatives — be it technology and the digital domain or becoming a green economy. The region holds the promise of long-term capital, innovation, markets and best practices.

Europe’s economic obsession following the 2008 Global Financial Crisis saw it withdraw from key political theatres. The pandemic has brought it right back to the great churning in Asia and indeed to the Indo-Pacific. The Indo-Pacific Strategies released by Germany and France and the India Strategy announced by EU are indications that the Old Continent is changing course. The UK has hinted that it is realigning its political positions. It is currently engaged in its most comprehensive integrated review of security, defence, development and foreign policies since the Cold War.

Much has been written about the divisions within EU. Economic differences, migration policies and the China factor all have a real basis and have impacted EU. These may well remain points of friction among member-states. The UK’s exit has also had consequences. Paradoxically, the events of 2020 have exposed the limits of fissiparous tendencies in EU.

There is now a disturbing realisation that China is no friend, and it is not like Europe. It drives the same vehicles and uses the same phones, but is not driven by the same values and principles. There is no convergence in world views. The perverse, even vulgar, conduct of mask diplomacy and thereafter the Wolf Warrior doctrine has been deeply disturbing to European sensibilities. Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi’s troublesome EU sojourn indicated a new European resolve to call out China, even as Beijing dug its heels in.

There is now a disturbing realisation that China is no friend, and it is not like Europe. It drives the same vehicles and uses the same phones, but is not driven by the same values and principles. There is no convergence in world views

In the UK, too, the boundaries of Brexitism are being tested. On 5G and technology choices, the UK and major EU countries are aligning positions. Global Britain is navigating new seas, but its ethical and strategic compass is keeping it firmly in the Atlantic Order. The earlier assumption at 10 Downing Street that it was possible to do business with China without being affected by its muscular politics has fallen short. The bears and bulls at the London Stock Exchange have danced for the Dragon far too long. In 2021, as it hosts G-7 — with India as a likely guest — and COP-26, the UK will realise exactly how much it remains embedded in Europe.

Shringla will find in his French, German and British interlocutors a new realism on trade. Free trade deals are not the issue they once were. The World Trade Organization (WTO) has reduced tariff barriers and the pandemic has enhanced the appreciation for non-tariff barriers. Boutique trade deals, supply chains restructuring where feasible, and enhanced linkages in health and vaccine value chains will be the focus. There will be less pressure on, and more opportunities for, India.

Shringla will find in his French, German and British interlocutors a new realism on trade. Free trade deals are not the issue they once were. The World Trade Organization (WTO) has reduced tariff barriers and the pandemic has enhanced the appreciation for non-tariff barriers

Realising the Sustainable Development Goals; battling the climate crisis through green transitions; and building a digital economy must also be on the menu. Post-Covid-19, we must build back green and build back better. In the past four years, the Paris Agreement has rested on European and Indian shoulders. It is time for Europe and India to shape a new global green deal. This EU+1 initiative should be on Shringla’s agenda as he engages with Paris and Berlin.

In London, he must create the ground for a bold UK-India announcement at COP-26 with an emphasis on a financing a framework that can catalyse green growth. India co-founded the International Solar Alliance with France and the Coalition for Disaster Resilient Infrastructure with the UK. These are critical legacies to be nurtured, more so since the United States (US) will continue to go through an existential crisis, to some degree, irrespective of what happens in early-November.

Technology is another shared frontier. Even as Europe invested in Chinese manufacturing zones, data from its banks, insurance and financial firms found safe and efficient homes in India. Trust was the operative word. And this same word will define partnerships in the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Digital partnerships between India and EU and concurrently India and the UK are inevitable and desirable. As they assess the extremes of the American and Chinese models, on technology norms, digital regulations and data privacy, India and various shades of Europeans will find their positions more aligned.

Technology is another shared frontier. Even as Europe invested in Chinese manufacturing zones, data from its banks, insurance and financial firms found safe and efficient homes in India. Trust was the operative word

With the US expected to be preoccupied till the new administration settles in by early-summer 2021, New Delhi is doing well to engage with other major Western democracies that, like India, are contributors to stability in the international system. Coming shortly after Jaishankar’s visit to Japan for the Quad talks and bilateral meetings, the foreign secretary’s trip to the heart of Old Europe is an important follow-up.


This commentary originally appeared in The Hindustan Times

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