BRICS, China, Speaking

BRICS Academic Forum 2022 | Opening Plenary

BRICS,consensus,Consolidation,Continuity,Digitalisation

Remarks by Dr Samir Saran at the Opening Plenary session of the BRICS Academic Forum 2022

It is a pleasure to be back again and be a part of the academic forum that has continued to raise important issues for intra BRICS cooperation and indeed, for the challenges that confront our world.

We are meeting today at an important moment—a moment that will be recorded and studied by future generations. It is important that all of us rise to the challenges that confront us and be creative in discovering solutions. Three major trends are seeking our attention and indeed, resolution.

First, global politics has been upended by the political actions in Asia and Europe. Conflicts, contests, and careless power projection have jeopardised stability, peace, and prosperity for all. Can we discover a new geostrategic balance and what role can BRICS play?

As we emerge from the pandemic—or at least begin to learn to live with it—what are the lessons that we have learnt? Will new development and growth models emerge, and will BRICS and other actors invest in what is most important for humankind?

And finally, we are experiencing the digitalisation of everything. Technology is having an impact on our economy, our politics, our societies, and indeed our individual behaviours, choices, and assessments of the world we live in.

New Politics, Green and Inclusive Growth, and our Common Digital Future beckons us. At the Indian presidency of the BRICS last year, we coined three words—Continuity, Consolidation, and Consensus. These remain relevant even as China steers the group and must continue to define the BRICS agenda.

We have to work together to overcome the contested politics of today. We must be contributors to stability in world affairs. We should reject actions as a group and as individual nations that can create further instability or exacerbate current tensions.

BRICS was always meant to be a grouping that would offer an alternative path to one prescribed by the Atlantic Order. We must continue to strive to do this. Unipolarity must give way to multipolarity. Bipolarity is not an option.

Three key elements will shape the path that BRICS and others must pave.

First, as the political assumptions of the 20th century may no longer be sufficient or valid for a more complex world, we must work together to script a multilateralism that is fit for purpose. It must reflect current realities, the aspirations of different geographies, and a governance structure that is plural, transparent, and accessible. The old hegemony of the Atlantic Order must not be replaced by a new hegemony from another region.

BRICS must continue—individually and collectively—to remain inclusive in shaping the multilateral system. This system must deliver on economic and trade growth. It must find new ways of catalysing financial flows for infrastructure and aspirational needs of multiple geographies. Multilateralism for this century will require new anchors and champions. BRICS can play that role, provided all members are committed to it.

Second, future growth and our economic needs will have to cater to our planetary responsibility. Green transitions must not simply be a buzzword, but the policy design for all. BRICS must work—both within and with others—to put together a template to invest toward a green planet. We have to rethink mobility, urban spaces, consumption, and our lifestyles. We must also work to protect those who are already being burdened by the deleterious consequences of global warming, rising sea levels, and harsh weather conditions.

Thirdly, we have to embrace technology and not allow it to become the new arena for zero-sum politics. The world must see technology as a digital public good and it must serve all of humanity equitably. The rules for this digital future are yet to be written. These rules must not be written only by the western hemisphere. In the absence of such agreed rules, sovereign arrangements must prevail over those written by the boardrooms. BRICS can share experiences and learnings from our individual journeys and offer to the world examples and methods of managing our common digital future. We must ensure that countries, within and outside, do not weaponise technology or game the digital public square.

It is impossible for BRICS to attain its full potential and contribute to global affairs unless each member is committed to the BRICS project and the thinking that led to its creation—peaceful co-existence, within the group and with others, being the primary ethos.

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China, Research

The world is in flux. Self-reliance is vital

Three contemporary developments have challenged India’s engagement with the world and its security concerns in the past 24 months. The first was the decision by China’s Xi Jinping to pick a line from a map in imagined history and send 100,000 troops and more to alter the current political equation in the Himalayas. This was a whimsical and perverse exertion of power that resulted in a bloody clash and a still continuing face-off between Indian and Chinese troops. Xi’s actions then were no different from Vladimir Putin’s in recent days, both yearning for the expanse of empires past or even mythical. The global reaction, though ostensibly sympathetic to India, was timid when compared to the current aggressive response to a similar Russian effort to change the politics of Europe.

Continuing economic engagement with China and appeasement of the Dragon to the detriment of its partners and allies defined the western world’s response. The differential between geopolitics in Europe and geopolitics in Asia has been underscored again in stark terms. The frenzied media coverage and careless commentary continue to reinforce how values and ethics vary when ethnicity and geography change. This must affect the assessments of the West’s partners in the East.

Next, in August 2021, the world’s mightiest superpower, the United States (US), finalised an unethical and tragic arrangement with a band of terrorists, and deserted Afghanistan overnight. Women rights, individual freedoms and the “values” that were propagated while waging the so-called liberal war against terror, were all discarded in favour of what was expedient. The professors of democracy and the radical Taliban found common cause and sent Afghanistan back to the 1990s. For India, terrorists armed with American weaponry were no longer just a threat scenario but a reality at its door — one it would have to handle by itself.

The differential between geopolitics in Europe and geopolitics in Asia has been underscored again in stark terms. The frenzied media coverage and careless commentary continue to reinforce how values and ethics vary when ethnicity and geography change.

And now, Putin has decided to go one up on Joe Biden and take Europe back to the early 20th century. Russian troops invaded a sovereign country to enforce a political writ driven solely by the desire to preserve Russia’s influence over geographies that increasingly disagree with the politics and propositions of the Kremlin. While Russia’s fears of the purpose and method of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)’s expansion must not be discounted, use of force and violation of a country’s sovereignty cannot be acceptable as an expression of disagreement.

The invasion of Ukraine has put India in an unenviable position of choosing between what is right and what it believes is right for itself. India’s tough words on Russian action in its statement at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), even as it abstained from voting, demonstrated this. Yet this is insufficient for many in the liberal West who seek India to be part of the normative liberal order, as well as of a performative chorus against Russia.

The invasion of Ukraine has put India in an unenviable position of choosing between what is right and what it believes is right for itself.

What is more striking than India’s predictable vote is the mood on the street and views of the commentariat. It seems that the memories of the feeble support on China and the shenanigans in Afghanistan are still fresh.

The US invasion of Iraq in 2003 had triggered loud political debates and voices against India’s then position on American intervention. This time, the convergence across the normally sharp political divide is palpable and must be a moment for reflection for many.

Several questions confront New Delhi. First, does strategic autonomy equal neutrality, or is it the freedom to choose what is best for the country at any given time? Can we disregard growing strategic expectations from partners? What are the dependencies that are being created by our economic and security choices? Which of them are inimical to our interests? And, how can we integrate this aspect as we make choices in a multi-layered world?

Finally, there is a question for the trans-Atlantic order. Its tough line on Russia’s military adventurism, gaming of economic relations, and cyber and information operations have been compelling. Will it hold this line when it comes to China’s actions? Or will the happenings in Asia continue to be appraised through a “dollar”- driven values framework?

Trusted connectivity, diversified sources of materials and components and resilient financial and trading arrangements are no longer buzzwords but a strategic imperative requiring all of India’s consensus, including within its business community, lawmakers and all stakeholders.

But the single most important learning through the pandemic years and the three geopolitical developments that have created turbulence for India is the burial of the post-war assumptions of the century past that undergirded our modern societies and indeed the global project that was born around the same time as India’s Independence.

Between China, the US and now Russia, we have witnessed the weaponisation of everything. Innocuous supply chain components for electronics, minor supplements for medicines, components for vaccine packaging, energy and gas grids, SWIFT system and currency and minerals and sundry materials have all been used for political coercion, waging war, or for undermining others’ interests.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s call for Aatmanirbharta (self-reliance) has acquired a new salience and ironically, achieving it requires astute global interlinkages and perhaps even more dense global networks for a country that houses a sixth of humanity. Trusted connectivity, diversified sources of materials and components and resilient financial and trading arrangements are no longer buzzwords but a strategic imperative requiring all of India’s consensus, including within its business community, lawmakers and all stakeholders.

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China, Indo-pacific, Raisina Dialogue, Research

Walking the walk of values-based diplomacy

Co-Authored with Amrita Narlikar

The talk of values is not new to German foreign policy-makers. But the Russian invasion on Ukraine seems to have finally led Germany to walk the walk. The last week has been both frenzied and path-breaking in German politics.

On 22 February, Germany’s Chancellor, Olaf Scholz—a Social Democrat from Hamburg—called for a halt to Nord Stream 2, in response to Russian President, Vladimir Putin’s, provocations in Eastern Ukraine. This was dramatic at several levels: Germany’s energy dependence on Russia had tended to make some politicians—including Scholz’s predecessor, Angela Merkel (a Christian Democrat)—wary of pulling the plug on the pipeline project. Scholz deserves even more credit for having made this break with Germany’s Russia policy in the context of party politics: The Social Democrats had come under critique in the past for being too soft on Russia (Russlandversteher).

Germany’s difficult past had led it to ban the export of weapons to conflict-zones; in keeping with this practice, the country had blocked Estonia from sending arms to Ukraine last month.

Since the outbreak of war in Ukraine on 24 February, Olaf Scholz has taken three further remarkable steps. First, after some hesitation, he has agreed to the inclusion of a ban on SWIFT transactions with Russia. This is a strong and costly signal to send to Russia as it will also have financial implications for Germany. Second, Germany’s difficult past had led it to ban the export of weapons to conflict-zones; in keeping with this practice, the country had blocked Estonia from sending arms to Ukraine last month. Olaf Scholz engineered an unprecedented shift. In a stirring speech at a special session of the German Parliament on 27 February, Scholz stated that Germany, by supporting Ukraine, will stand on the side of Europe, democracy, and the “the right side of history”. Amongst the concrete measures he outlined, sending military supplies to Ukraine was key: “Russian invasion marks a turning point. It is our duty to support Ukraine to the best of our ability in defending against Putin’s invading army”. Germany will now be supplying anti-tank weapons and Stinger missiles to Ukraine. And third, just as significant is Germany’s announcement to increase its NATO defence spending, thereby signaling the emergence of Germany as a security actor.

In a country where deliberative democracy is exalted (sometimes to a point where it amounts to being a strategy to doing nothing or muddling through), and the burden of history is high, the swift turn towards taking greater responsibility through action cannot be underestimated. Scholz’s leadership has been critical to this development, though he is undoubtedly helped by his coalition partners in the Green Party, who have come to power on a platform of principles and values. Germany’s proactive role is invigorating for us to observe, and is perhaps also serving as a catalyst for the European Union: Witness the unprecedented decision by the EU to purchase weapons for Ukraine.

One could still take issue with the timing of all this: It would have indeed been better to signal such resolve to Putin before his attack on Ukraine, thereby, deterring war in the first place. But at a time when Germany seems to be finally walking the walk of values, it is time to not look behind, but fare forward.

Germany’s proactive role is invigorating for us to observe, and is perhaps also serving as a catalyst for the European Union: Witness the unprecedented decision by the EU to purchase weapons for Ukraine. 

It is clear that Scholz has understood the importance of hard power, in a way that his predecessors had not. As a dedicated European, he also knows that the Putin’s aggression towards Ukraine is a threat to European security as a whole. The question remains though, will he be able to extend his gaze to the global stage, and exercise much-needed leadership there? Putin is not the only authoritarian with grand designs in his neighbourhood; President Xi has been displaying similar adventurism towards Taiwan. The Ukraine crisis has brought these two players even closer, thus far. Will Scholz be the Chancellor to break out of the European platitudes of “partner, competitor, and rival” and finally call out China, just the way he has with Russia? As Mayor of Hamburg, Scholz was able to successfully attract Chinese investment to his city. As the Chancellor of Germany, he now has the onerous task of building a governance architecture that will secure the continent—and like-minded, democratic partners—from Chinese expansionism.

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China, Digital India, Research

Big Tech vs. Red Tech: The Diminishing of Democracy in the Digital Age

Co-Authored with Shashank Mattoo

In the third decade of the twenty-first century, democracies face a new adversary — technology. Technology was once seen as a force for good, which could bridge the gap between the state and restless streets. Today, owned and controlled by large enterprises and extra-territorial governments, that very technology sometimes undermines the foundations of democracy, where it functions as a public sphere and a vibrant information exchange.

Much of the world has blearily woken up to big tech’s ambitions, expansion and unaccountable power to shape the human condition. A few companies, dotted on America’s West Coast (henceforth referred to as big tech), now possess the ability to harness the digital gold rush — along with the equally overwhelming influence on discourse in democratic societies. In parallel, a rising China, with its rapid successes in building a vibrant technology ecosystem, has unleashed plans to dominate innovation, high technology and the global perceptions ecosystem (henceforth referred to as red tech).

Technology from the West Coast of the United States and technology that seeks to serve the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) have both chosen to pursue their defined objectives with little thought for constitutional systems and laws in third countries. As such, much of the democratic world is at risk of being caught in the vice-like grip of big tech and red tech. It is, therefore, time for democratic societies to discover and examine means to secure an open and free global technological ecosystem that serves all shades of democracy.

Technology from the West Coast of the United States and technology that seeks to serve the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) have both chosen to pursue their defined objectives with little thought for constitutional systems and laws in third countries.

Why the Battle for Tech Matters

The threat that big tech poses to democracy is multifaceted. First, major social media platforms — Twitter, Facebook, Google and others — curate, promote and curtail information received by and, indeed, even the opinions of citizens in democratic societies. This power over speech and expression, and therefore over our politics and polity, is unrivalled in history (Baer and Chin 2021). While US steel, big oil and big tobacco were brought to heel by domestic regulations and national governments, the transnational reach of big tech has made it much harder to circumscribe (Lago 2021).

Operating outside rules and regulations prescribed by sovereign constitutions, social media platforms now exercise a worrying level of influence without accountability. Big tech has deplatformed controversial political figures such as Donald Trump (Byers 2021); censored content, a decision that internal ombudsmen disagree with (Eidelman and Ruane 2021); and has encouraged an engagement-based content ranking system that has allowed everything from disinformation about coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) to hate speech to spread (Harris 2021). Platforms are free to decide whether they function as private hosting platforms or providers of a vital public utility; they cannot be both. Yet, they pick and choose between the two functions as it suits them.

National governments have not been asleep at the wheel. From New Delhi to Canberra, they have tabled regulations to rein in social media behemoths. In every instance, platform enterprises have chosen to obstruct, obfuscate and outmanoeuvre regulatory efforts (Clayton 2021). Left unregulated, our digital commons may become a noxious space that suffocates democracy, rather than being the promised breath of fresh air.

The future of democratic societies will also be decided by the contest with China in high technology. This competition runs deeper than China’s desire to build “national champions” that can outcompete the Googles and Apples of the world. To Beijing, China’s technology capabilities directly serve interests, ideologies and inclinations of the CCP (Tyagi 2021). Even as the Great Firewall of China allows the CCP monopoly control over ideas and over truth among its own citizens, China’s ever-increasing reach and economic expansion provides the party the ability to pervert and undermine the public sphere of other nations.

Platforms are free to decide whether they function as private hosting platforms or providers of a vital public utility; they cannot be both.

From harnessing artificial intelligence (AI) in the form of facial recognition technologies to vastly expand its citizen surveillance system (Davies 2021) to deploying those very capabilities against Uighur minorities in Xinjiang (Mozur 2019), the CCP will not shy away from deploying tech to reinforce strict authoritarian control at home. Overseas, “wolf warriors” (Martin 2021) insert themselves into every global debate of consequence and Chinese money power prevents Western media or social media from acting against such insidious and troubling participation that aggravates cleavages in other societies.

As China’s economic influence and technological capabilities have grown, it has sought to influence and manipulate global publics. China’s official media, governmental entities and diplomats have leveraged open platforms such as Twitter to peddle disinformation on the origins of COVID-19 (Associated Press 2021). China’s influence operations have also extended to election interference in Taiwan (Kurlantzick 2019), and they are increasingly inserting themselves in other countries as well. According to Freedom House, China has used its technological capabilities, in tandem with its economic and political power, to launch a massive influence operation that is gaming democracies from the inside out (Cook 2020).

Red tech is clearly an extension of the CCP’s global ambitions. For example, global standards bodies and multilateral organizations have been flooded with standards proposals by Chinese tech firms that would enshrine CCP values into the fundamental architecture of the internet (Gargeyas 2021). At the United Nations, Huawei and other Chinese state-owned enterprises have led advocacy for a “New IP” to replace the existing TCP/IP (Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol) structure of the internet (Gross and Murgia 2020). Industry analysts have expressed concern that this new structure, with inbuilt controls that would allow for vastly increased governmental interference, is fundamentally at odds with the open internet of today.

According to Freedom House, China has used its technological capabilities, in tandem with its economic and political power, to launch a massive influence operation that is gaming democracies from the inside out (Cook 2020).

The ascendance of Chinese standards and tech also worries global actors for other reasons. While the United States and the European Union have enabled the creation of penetrated and argumentative democracies — wherein all countries and civil society organizations can advocate for the regulation of big tech or the promulgation of General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) standards — China has no equivalent political structure. In fact, China’s intemperate wolf warrior diplomacy, which has precipitated clashes with Australia (Ryan 2020), Sweden (BBC News 2018) and France (Seibt 2021), among others, demonstrates that China has little tolerance for dissenting views or for reciprocal tolerance of criticism.

The Regulatory Void

Despite the high stakes and clear threat, regulation has failed to keep up. Major powers have not come to the fundamental realization that regulations must be both political and functional. Technology regulations driven by industry may have prized functionality, but both big tech’s subversion of regular constitutional processes and democratic debate as well as red tech’s brazen advancement of the CCP’s agenda demand regulation to recognize and return to its political roots.

Part of the reluctance to commit to a more political vision of regulation stems from overdependence on a China that dominates major global economies and the tech innovation ecosystem (Pletka and Scissors 2020). Given the massive size of the Chinese market, its capable and growing technology product and service lines, and Beijing’s willingness to use market access as leverage, many dither in enforcing regulations that exclude Chinese technology from specific sectors and functions. Others feel that government interference and politicization in regulatory matters could result in the fracturing of the global tech innovation ecosystem altogether (Schneider-Petsinger et al. 2019).

Technology regulations driven by industry may have prized functionality, but both big tech’s subversion of regular constitutional processes and democratic debate as well as red tech’s brazen advancement of the CCP’s agenda demand regulation to recognize and return to its political roots.

However, the return to more political regulation to oversee technology in the days ahead is inevitable. Simply, it is part of a well-established historical cycle. As Caetano Penna (2022) points out, every technological revolution has generated cycles of exuberance that leave contemporary social forces and political institutions in disarray. Only later does society mobilize to reshape institutions to suit a new era. Such regulation in service of societal goals has always been a key determinant in the evolution of industrialized societies. The spread of communication technologies in the boom from the 1980s to 2008 represented a cycle of exuberance. Today, however, technology possesses the power to fundamentally remake, disrupt and destabilize societies. AI-enabled machines threaten to put millions out of work and social media platforms, with a little Chinese help, have the potential to undermine democracies.

What Does a More Political Vision Look Like?

States, civil societies and general publics will have to take back control of the conversation over technology from tech companies. Part of this process will be nationally led and the rest multilateral. Domestic polities need to debate and hammer out a national consensus on some key issues, including on whether to enshrine privacy as a fundamental right. Assuming privacy is guaranteed, what level of privacy would suit their purposes? Who should own and have access to data? Who decides, and through what process, whether particular ideologies and groups should have access to the public commons?

In parts of the world where this debate is ongoing, robust data protection and privacy laws have been framed. While Canada now holds major tech platforms to the same transparency standards as traditional broadcasting groups (Solomun, Polataiko and Hayes 2021), Australia (Choudhury 2021) and India (Saran 2021) have adopted more stringent social media rules aimed at forcing big tech to comply with national-level regulations and directives on content. Nations would also have to debate the merits and benefits of the existing open internet model versus competing visions such as China’s New IP proposal. Each of these decisions would require clear choices by citizens who have, thus far, been excluded from conversations by governing elites and technology companies.

Domestic polities need to debate and hammer out a national consensus on some key issues, including on whether to enshrine privacy as a fundamental right.

At the multilateral level, bringing politics back into regulation will help safeguard data and democracies. An excellent example of political regulation is the European GDPR data architecture. Even firms outside the European Union that provide services to EU citizens find themselves subject to the European Union’s fundamentally political vision of privacy for its citizens (Nadeau 2020). The GDPR has also allowed for another political choice: flows of data will be free within the European Union but will be subject to protections upon leaving its borders.1 In effect, the European Union has erected a robust regime of protection that privileges countries that share a similar vision of privacy and data protection.

The European Union’s economic, political and normative leverage, popularized through the “Brussels effect,” has effectively forced other regimes to make way for it, with numerous countries enacting similar procedures. As such, the European experience in norms and standards setting is useful. Countries that share similar political visions of internet governance, disinformation and other aspects of technology policy can come together multilaterally to make the vision prevail globally. And disruptive players such as China, still new to the standards game, must make their peace with liberal democratic norms — or risk being left out in the cold.

Robert Fay suggests key digital powers come together to form a multilateral body, the Digital Stability Board (DSB), which would enact digital policy in much the same way that the Financial Stability Board helps design and monitor the implementation of key financial policies while assessing risks and vulnerabilities in the global financial system (Emanuele 2021). A DSB would lead discussion on regulating data value chains, countering misinformation and the development of cutting-edge technologies such as AI (ibid.). Given the transnational nature of the challenge posed by big tech’s dominance, a forum such as the DSB would be well suited to lay down the rules of the road on regulation and reining in major tech platforms.

Countries that share similar political visions of internet governance, disinformation and other aspects of technology policy can come together multilaterally to make the vision prevail globally.

While such a DSB would be useful to manage hostilities with powers such as China, another interesting proposal comes in the form of a group of 1o leading democracies, or D10. Proposed by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson (Fisher 2020), a D10 grouping would significantly source equipment for key technologies such as 5G from countries within the partnership. It could also develop a shared approach on key threats facing democracies, including countering disinformation, penalizing purveyors of influence operations such as China (or even Russia and other countries) and devising workable regulations for social media platforms that strike a balance between fighting fake news and preserving freedom of expression.

Ultimately, the introduction of the D10 to digital policy debates would signify a shared political vision, born out of democratic values, toward building the digital economy and regulating malcontents in the system. Good, old-fashioned democratic politics remains a primary driver even in the digital age. Wolves and wolf warriors hunt in packs; open societies need to respond with similar unity of purpose.


This piece builds on an intervention by Samir Saran at the Summit for Democracy on December 10, 2021.


[1] See https://gdpr-info.eu/issues/third-countries/.

Works Cited

Associated Press. 2021. “China played leading role in spreading Covid-19 conspiracies, investigation finds.” South China Morning Post, June 12.

Baer, Bill and Caitlin Chin. 2021. “Addressing Big Tech’s power over speech.” TechTank (blog), June 1.

BBC News. 2018. “Why Sweden and China have fallen out so badly.” BBC News, September 26.

Byers, Dylan. 2021. “How Facebook and Twitter decided to take down Trump’s accounts.” NBC News, January 14.

Choudhury, Saheli Roy. 2021. “Australia is preparing for another showdown with Big Tech — this time over defamatory posts.” CNBC, October 13.

Clayton, James. 2021. “Facebook reverses ban on news pages in Australia.” BBC News, February 23.

Cook, Sarah. 2020. “Beijing’s Global Megaphone: The Expansion of Chinese Communist Party Media Influence since 2017.” Freedom House Special Report.

Davies, Dave. 2021. “Facial Recognition and Beyond: Journalist Ventures Inside China’s ‘Surveillance State.’” Fresh Air, January 5.

Eidelman, Vera and Kate Ruane. 2021. “The Problem With Censoring Political Speech Online — Including Trump’s.” American Civil Liberties Union, June 15.

Emanuele, Marco. 2021. “Towards the Digital Stability Board for a digital Bretton Woods.” The Science of Where, February 1.

Fisher, Lucy. 2020. “Downing Street plans new 5G club of democracies.” The Times, May 29.

Gargeyas, Arjun. 2021. “China’s ‘Standards 2035’ Project Could Result in a Technological Cold War.” The Diplomat, September 18.

Gross, Anna and Madhumita Murgia. 2020. “China and Huawei propose reinvention of the internet.” Financial Times, March 27.

Harris, Tristan. 2021. “Big Tech’s attention economy can be reformed. Here’s how.” MIT Technology Review, January 10.

Kurlantzick, Joshua. 2019. “How China Is Interfering in Taiwan’s Election.” Council on Foreign Relations, November 7.

Lago, Cristina. 2021. “Is a coordinated international approach the way to regulate Big Tech?” Tech Monitor, September 29.

Martin, Peter. “China’s Wolf Warriors Are Turning the World Against Beijing.” Bloomberg, June 7.

Mozur, Paul. 2019. “One Month, 500,000 Face Scans: How China Is Using A.I. to Profile a Minority.” The New York Times, April 14.

Nadeau, Michael. 2020. “General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR): What you need to know to stay compliant.” CSO, June 12.

Penna, Caetano. 2022. “Technological Revolutions and the Role of the State in the Governance of Digital Technologies.” Global Cooperation on Digital Governance and the Geoeconomics of New Technologies in a Multi-polar World Essay Series.

Pletka, Danielle and Derek Scissors. 2020. “We’re too dependent on China for too many critical goods. Especially medicine.” American Enterprise Institute, March 21.

Ryan, Mitch. 2020. “China-Australia clash: How it started and how it’s going.” Nikkei Asia, December 9.

Saran, Samir. 2021. “Big Tech and the State: The necessity of regulating tech giants.” Observer Research Foundation, June 26.

Schneider-Petsinger, Marianne, Jue Wang, Yu Jie and James Crabtree. 2019. “US–China Strategic Competition: The Quest for Global Technological Leadership.” Chatham House, November.

Seibt, Sébastian. 2021. “Wolf warriors and a ‘crazed hyena’: French researcher ‘not intimidated’ after clash with China envoy.” France 24, March 23.

Solomun, Sonja, Maryna Polataiko and Helen A. Hayes. 2021. “Platform Responsibility and Regulation in Canada: Considerations on Transparency, Legislative Clarity, and Design.” Harvard Journal of Law & Technology Digest 24.

Tyagi, Gaurav. 2021. “Battling Chinese Big Tech encroachment in India.” Observer Research Foundation, June 12.

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China, Digital India, India - U.S., Indo-pacific, Research

India @ 75: Ethic, Economy and Exemplar

If a weary international community—reeling from unanticipated challenges and unprecedented disruptions in the early 21st century—was looking forward to a stabilising start to the 2020s, its hopes were short-lived. COVID-19 continues to weave its way through borders and continents, felling victims and flummoxing governments. Two years down the line, it is increasingly clear that we have to learn to live with the virus, as it shows signs of transitioning to become endemic. A “new normal” where COVID-19 does not cripple communities, countries and whole continents is the future, even as vaccine inequity makes the possibility of more lethal variants imminent.

But even before COVID-19 forced us to radically rethink and redo the way we live our very lives, a certain tiredness had been evident. Generational and geographical shifts in the balance of power, rapid advances in technology-led innovations, and existential global risks like climate change have all strained the capacity of prevailing international norms and institutions. These have left them looking wilted, if not withered. Now, these norms and institutions have all but shattered from the strain of the pandemic. There is no percentage in stating the obvious, yet it must be reiterated: The international community needs new ideas, anchors and torchbearers to reinvigorate globalisation and strengthen global co-operation.

Towards this end, only asinine assessments of a future world order as the century turns 20 would ignore the crucial role of India in shaping this decade, and determining the trajectory of the decades to follow. Our endeavour with this series of essays is to capture the ideas and ethics driving contemporary Indian diplomacy; examine the methods and contours of India’s engagement with the world; and, offer a prognosis of India’s future as a leading power.

Under the rubric of ‘India@75: Aspirations, Ambitions, and Approaches’, ORF has curated 18 essays written by some of the world’s finest minds, representing former heads of state and government, members of parliament, heads of international institutions, leaders from business, and experts from academia and media. Between them, they have studied India’s evolving relationship with new geographies, its engagement with new domains of global governance, and the human imperative that must define India’s rise.

Few predict the path ahead will be easy for India, or that latent and legacy challenges confronting this nation can be ignored. Indeed, most assessments in this volume suggest disquiet and uncertainty. Amrita Narlikar begins her essay with a cautionary note on world affairs. “Multilateralism is facing a crisis of unprecedented proportions,” she writes, “It manifests itself in a fundamental questioning of the very value of multilateralism within countries and deadlocks in negotiations in multilateral organisations.” But this global crisis, she argues, also begets opportunities for India. C. Raja Mohan agrees and asserts that this period of churn offers India the opportunity to shed the temptation to act alone and actively build new coalitions and consensus with other powers. But this will depend, he argues, on how quickly India can restructure its traditional worldview.

As Harsh V Pant writes in this essay, this restructuring is already underway, as “India’s past diffidence in making certain foreign policy choices is rapidly giving way to greater readiness to acknowledge the need for a radical shift in thinking about internal capability enhancement by leveraging external partnerships.”

As the world’s centre of gravity shifts from the Atlantic system, India’s engagement with both emerging and old geographies acquires new salience. And this is where the new external partnerships are actively taking shape. Central among these is the dynamically evolving Indo-Pacific construct which, as Premesha Saha posits, will weave communities, markets and states from the East Pacific to East Africa into one strategic geography. How India adapts its “economic structure” to these realities and implements its “commitment to prevent hegemony in the oceans”, argues Kwame Owino, will determine its ability to lead these new regions.

But shaping new geographies will also require India to manage certain old relationships. The Indo-Pacific should not be seen in isolation—its markets and communities are also rapidly integrating with the Eurasian supercontinent. Steven Blockmans laments that the India-EU relationship has underperformed given its potential to anchor democratic and rules-based governance in greater Eurasia. Solomon Passy and Angel Apostolov boldly make the case for exploring the possibility of a dialogue between NATO and India, indicating just how drastically—and rapidly—the mental maps of the world are morphing.

There is a common thread that binds these analyses: A keen interest in India’s evolving relationship with the US and China. These three nations will, after all, rank among the largest three economies by the middle of this century. The turbulent Twenties will see the dynamics of this power triangle assume centre stage. The US sees India as a partner in its endeavour to neutralise an increasingly aggressive and expansionist China. Jane Holl Lute argues that India “has understood China’s principal strategic aim to replace the United States as the most consequential security power in Asia”. While India’s choices will undoubtedly implicate the balance of power between the US and China, India will most likely chart its own course in international affairs.

ORF Distinguished Fellow Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan highlights India’s behaviour in international negotiations on outer space as a primary example. In every significant process—from the UN GGE to the EU CoC—India has argued for greater multilateralism while actively discouraging behaviour that is “inherently destabilising”. I would add India’s engagement on cyber governance, particularly on emerging technologies, to this list. Although technological systems are rapidly unravelling, India has sought to frame rules for its digital economy that both serve its development interests and preserve interdependence. As Trisha Ray writes, “New Delhi must prepare to shape, rather than be shaped, by these shifting geopolitical winds.” Others remind us that much work still needs to be done. Renato Flores urges India to learn lessons from its RCEP withdrawal, shed traditional hesitations, and emerge as a leading advocate for multilateral trade.

India’s most significant contribution to the global commons will be providing sustainable livelihoods to its own people, and its battle against climate change. Indeed, Oommen Kurian & Shoba Suri begin their analysis with the proposition that success or failure in implementing the global SDG agenda is dependent almost wholly on India achieving its own targets. India already produces nearly half of all global vaccines and is a leading voice on IPR reform, as Khor Swee Kheng & K. Srinath Reddy note, making it essential for global health security. India will also be tasked with achieving livelihood goals for itself and the world in a carbon-constrained world, which is why Jayant Sinha argues that India can no longer rely on the ‘farm to industry’ model of development.

Instead, Nilanjan Ghosh asserts that India’s own goal of becoming a US$10 trillion economy, which is both equitable and inclusive, is only possible by following through on the SDG agenda. All of this, according to Adil Zainulbhai, will be powered by India’s already immense digital infrastructure, innovation capabilities and skilled workforce as it leverages the Fourth Industrial Revolution to its advantage. “India’s green transformation,” asserts Mihir Sharma, “will have to be led by the decisions of its people and by the energy of its private sector.”

It is these twin imperatives—achieving sustainable development and the climate change agenda— that make India a very different type of ‘rising power’. Its path to prominence will not be defined by military dominance or coercive economic capabilities. Instead, India’s rise will be characterised by its ability to provide solutions, technologies and finance to emerging communities in urgent need of new models of economic growth and social mobility. It is this ‘new economic diplomacy’, Navdeep Suri believes, that will define India’s foreign policy priorities in the decade ahead.

Underwriting India’s foreign policy will be its civilisational identity as a democratic, open and plural society. Arguably the most abstract of all its foreign policy tools, India’s own ability to retain social cohesion while providing economic growth and development will, as Prime Minister Stephen Harper observes, help “lead the world as a whole to greater prosperity and peace”. Indeed, each essay has this very sentiment at its core—the importance of India’s rise for its own people, its region, and indeed as a model for the world in this century.

We hope these essays will provide an intellectual stimulus to debates and discussions that will undoubtedly contribute to shaping our collective future, examine our contemporary challenges and allow us a moment to learn from the journey so far. The world in the 2020s demands more from us. Indians must be ready to deliver.

This piece is the Editor’s Note for the essay series, India@75: Aspirations, Ambitions, and Approaches

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China, Digital India, Media, Research

The shaky ground that digital democracies walk on

A decade ago, the Arab Spring levelled the divide — even if briefly — between the Palace and the Street. Powered by social media, the age of digital democracy was upon us. Technology has since become the mainstay of civic activism. Not only are more voices heard, but elected governments are also more responsive to them. And indeed, in many countries, more people are participating in politics than ever before. From attitudes and approaches of platforms and governments to the proliferation of intrusive technologies that invade personal spaces, the gains of the past decade are nevertheless being undermined. The past year or so has made us acutely aware of the weaknesses and threats to digital democracies. Some of these need a coordinated global response.

First, the very platforms that have fuelled calls for accountability often see themselves as above scrutiny, bound not by democratic norms but by bottom lines. The fact is acquisition metrics and market valuations don’t sustain democracy. The contradiction between short-term returns on investment and the long-term health of a digital society is stark. If hate, violence, and falsehoods drive engagement, and, therefore, profits for companies and platforms, our societies are indeed on shaky ground.

To make technology serve democracy, regulation will have to be completely rethought. Big Tech boardrooms must be held to standards of responsible behaviour that match their power to influence and persuade. Moreover, any accountability framework must be global. The global south lives with and depends on technology platforms designed in the north. These platforms have been visibly taken to task by lawmakers and institutions in the countries of their design. Does the larger cohort of users in the developing and emerging democratic world have recourse to such action? And is this denial tenable and fair?

Most democratic constitutions around the world, while protecting expression, do so with safeguards that are meant to secure peace and co-existence in societies that have histories longer and more storied than America’s.

Second, much of Big Tech is designed and anchored in the United States (US). Understandably, it pushes American — or perhaps Californian — free speech absolutism. This is in conflict with laws in most democracies — including in the US after January 6. Most democratic constitutions around the world, while protecting expression, do so with safeguards that are meant to secure peace and co-existence in societies that have histories longer and more storied than America’s.

This American approach to freedom of expression imposed on other democratic societies, at velocities facilitated by technology, is a formula for serious disorder. If American Big Tech wishes to emerge as Global Tech, it must adhere to global democratic norms. Its normative culture must assimilate and reconcile, not prescribe and mandate. In the absence of such an understanding, a clash is but inevitable. It must be emphasised that the fault line would be social norms, not the benefits of technology.

If global democracy and global tech are to coexist, the global south must sit at the high table when regulations are designed and as ethics are embedded in algorithms. Today, the global south’s participation in policy and design decisions that shape our tech future is like the map of vaccinations in our pandemic world — significantly underrepresented in democratic Africa and Asia.

Finally, the greatest danger to the freedom our democracies enjoy is from authoritarian regimes that exploit our liberties and turn them against us. In the real world, Peng Shuai is under house arrest. But in the virtual world, she is presented as being free and happy. Wolf warriors have given a whole new meaning to the phrase “virtual reality”. Recently, an Indian speaker at a transportation conference in China found her microphone turned off because she questioned the Belt and Road Initiative. We are in an unprecedented political landscape where authoritarians weaponise our debates even as we are silenced in theirs. Would any country allow another to open an embassy if it did not have reciprocal rights in the other capital?

The global south’s participation in policy and design decisions that shape our tech future is like the map of vaccinations in our pandemic world — significantly underrepresented in democratic Africa and Asia.

We are living in that perverse reality already. China’s media and government handles conduct aggressive diplomacy in our digital public sphere while we are denied the right to do so in theirs. Beijing and other authoritarian regimes are omnipresent in our digital lives. Their handles bombard us; their chosen narratives besiege and colour the truth. How can we prevent such regimes from gaming the public sphere, and from this perversion of institutions, academia, media, and tech platforms? Their presence on our platforms represents a systemic challenge and a security risk. It must be responded to.

The alleged disruption of America’s elections in 2016 will be child’s play as compared to what may happen in 2024. That year, India, the US and the European Union Parliament will all hold elections — the first such coincidence in the age of digital democracy. We face a perfect storm of misinformation and manipulation. Confronted by wolf warriors, the rest of us can’t be lambs to the slaughter. Open societies have always stoutly defended their borders. Now, they must safeguard these new digital frontlines. At the Summit for Democracy — called by President Joe Biden and addressed by, among others Prime Minister Narendra Modi, it was apparent to all that the democratic world needs to get its house in order. Even as democracies attend to this they need to ensure that other’s don’t burn the house down.

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Books / Papers, BRICS, China, COVID-19, Research

Stocktaking and Recommendations for Consolidation: Joint Academic Paper by ORF and RIS

As the BRICS passes through a crucial milestone of its existence, celebrating 15 years of its formation, this report examines the initiatives launched since inception and makes recommendations for consolidating and streamlining the agenda.

The BRICS remains a prominent grouping in the global governance architecture due to the individual influence of each member-state and the collective size of their economies. The confidence in BRICS from within and the perceptions outside the grouping are shaped by its successes in institution-building and resource mobilisation. The highlight of BRICS’s success is its strong focus on issues of financial stability and global governance reforms, particularly in areas related to macroeconomic stability. These are supplemented by attention to sustainable development issues backed by finance and technology.

The BRICS agenda has witnessed a steady expansion of its scope ever since its inception. During the initial years, the agenda was focused on responding to the trans-Atlantic financial crisis with a special focus on multilateralism, particularly the need to reform the international monetary and financial architecture. Subsequently, the BRICS established the New Development Bank and the Contingent Reserve Arrangement, two flagship financial initiatives that remain the biggest success stories of the plurilateral to date. Notably, with the outbreak of Covid19 in 2020, there has been a special focus on responding to the pandemic and coordinating recovery.

Given the expanding scope, there is a need for consolidation and streamlining of the BRICS agenda. This will help address structural deficiencies and facilitate the smooth coordination for building consensus on key issues. To realise these goals, a thorough review of the BRICS cooperation mechanisms is necessary. This joint academic study presents an assessment of the various tracks under the BRICS framework, such that the grouping can better pursue the collective agenda of economic cooperation and sustainable development.

The year 2021 has been significant, with the Indian presidency underscoring ‘BRICS@15: Intra-BRICS Cooperation for Continuity, Consolidation and Consensus’ as the theme. The aspect of ‘consolidation’ received special attention. The Indian presidency also helped in concretising several action areas that had remained dormant. A case in point is the Agriculture Research Platform proposed by India at the 2015 Ufa Summit with a memorandum of understanding signed during the Indian presidency in 2016. This was launched in the virtual format in 2021, again during India’s presidency.

India’s presidency of BRICS in 2021 has set a definite example for streamlining of the BRICS agenda. As the agenda consolidates, future presidencies will find room for emerging themes that require urgent attention. Consolidation does not always only mean weeding out weaker sprouts, but to have comprehensive approaches towards setting common goals so that even relatively weaker initiatives can be scaled with resources. A preliminary assessment of the initiatives launched by BRICS is presented in this report.

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China, Cyber Security, Politics / Globalisation, Writing

Made in China: A Digital Agenda for the Quad

In the Indo-Pacific and beyond, China’s growth in capabilities and political authoritarianism are now threatening to alter how we engage with technology and digital domains. China believes it has the right to access other nations’ information and networks without offering up access to its own. This is not a simple techno-mercantilism. There is a single purpose to China’s deepening investments in existing and future technologies: furthering the agenda of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

For Beijing, technology is about both national security and ideology. Under Xi Jinping, it will use the information age to rewrite every assumption of the postwar period. Countries outside China must join together to seek open, safe and inclusive technology and digital platforms and products.

There are five main ways in which we can shape national, regional and global engagement with our digital world. These must also drive the purpose and direction of the Quad countries (the United States, Australia, Japan and India) as they strive to create a technology and digital partnership in the Indo-Pacific.

‘China tech’ was for the CCP initially about managing the social contract within China. Now, the CCP is weaponising and gaming other nations’ democracies, public spheres and open systems. It is creating a digital insurgency that allows it to delegitimise its opponents on their own political turf. This goes beyond episodic interference in elections. The CCP uses American forums such as Twitter and Facebook to critique the domestic and foreign policy of nations such as India. Wolf warriors seek to shape the information space internationally while China and the CCP remain protected behind the Great Firewall. The unimpeded global access China is allowed under some perverse notion of free speech must be questioned; internet propaganda endorsed by authoritarian regimes cannot and should not go unchecked. As a first step, the world will have to embrace a political approach to repel the digital encroachments we are witnessing. The European Union offers a model – just as its General Data Protection Regulation sought to rein in the US technology giants, we need laws that limit China’s access to the public spheres of open societies, thereby curtailing its global influence.

Today, all digital (silk) roads lead to Beijing. Many developing countries rely on China for their technology sectors. From control over rare earths and key minerals to monopoly over manufacturing, China commands the digital spigot. The Quad countries and others in the Indo-Pacific must seek and encourage diversification. Affordable, accessible products and innovations must emerge in the digital space. From resilient supply chains to diversity of ownership, a whole new approach is needed to prevent the perverse influence of any single actor. This is the second way to shape global patterns of digital engagement.

The Chinese under Xi have embraced the dangerous essence of the Chinese phrase ‘borrowing a boat to go out to the sea’. The CPC has essentially borrowed all our boats to further their agenda.

Universities in the developed world, their mediatheir public institutions and even their technology companies are serving and responding to missives from the Middle Kingdom. Many journalists have exposed the Western media’s promiscuous entanglements with a Beijing that artfully co-opts them into its propaganda effort. In the digital age, this cannot be ignored. Countries will soon be faced with a digital fait accompli – signing on to Pax Sinica. As a third way to enhance engagement, it is time to protect liberal institutions from their own excesses.

China has attempted to internationalise its currency with the launch of its own digital currency. After banning financial institutions and payment companies from providing crypto-related services in May, China launched a crackdown on computer-powered crypto mining in June, and a blanket ban on all crypto transactions and mining in September, clearing the way for its digital renminbi (digital RMB). With the development of its own central bank digital currency, the Chinese government will now have the power to track spending in real time. It will have access to the entire digital footprint of a citizen or a company. This will provide Beijing with an unprecedented vault of data, which it can use to exercise control over technology companies and individuals.

The rise of China’s digital RMB has the potential to challenge the status of the American greenback. For decades, the US dollar has been the world’s dominant reserve currency. Yet countries such as Iran, Russia and Venezuela have already begun using the Chinese yuan for trade-related activities or replacing the dollar with the yuan as reference currency. China can shape all three attributes of the ‘ideal’ currency, also referred to as the ‘Impossible Trinity’: free capital flow, a fixed exchange rate and independent monetary policy. It is a matter of time before it uses currency as part of its wider geopolitical plans. And with its past experiments with many countries on ‘trade in local currency’, it will have the capacity to create disruptions in the global monetary system. This can only be countered with two measures: one, depoliticising the existing dollar-led currency arrangements (the tendency to weaponise the SWIFT system – a giant messaging network used by banks and other financial institutions to transmit secure information – and to employ ad-hoc economic sanctions) and two, investing in the economic future of the emerging economies that currently depend on China.

Lastly, China is seeking technological domination not only terrestrially but also in outer space. China has invested considerably in space technology and engages in counterspace activities. These include suspected interference in satellite operations, both through cyberattacks and ground-based lasers. There are growing fears that Chinese technologies developed for ostensibly peaceful uses, such as remote satellite repair and cleaning up debris, could be employed for nefarious ends. The inadequate space governance mechanisms is an opportunity for the Quad to develop situational awareness in the space realm to track and counter such activities, and to develop a new set of norms for space governance.

The Quad’s agenda is prescribed by China’s actions. It will have to be a political actor and have the capacity to challenge China in the information sphere and the technology domain. It will need to be a normative power and develop ideas and ideals that are attractive to all.

From codes and norms for financial technologies to the code of conduct for nations and corporations in cyberspace and outer space, the Quad has the responsibility and opportunity to write the rules for our common digital future.

The Quad will also have to be an economic actor and build strategic capacities and assets in the region and beyond. It will have to secure minerals, diversify supply chains and create alternatives that ensure the digital lifelines are not disrupted.

Most importantly, the Quad will need to be an attractive partner for others to work with. This is its best means to counter China’s dangerous influence.


This commentary originally appeared in The Sydney Dialogue.

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