President Biden took that inchoate sense of competition and, in the past six months, has crafted a strategist’s foreign policy. The pieces are slowly falling into place. India got a deeper look at what that might mean this week, when Antony Blinken, Biden’s cerebral Secretary of State, spent some quality time with S Jaishankar, Ajit Doval and PM Narendra Modi. From the Quad, Afghanistan and Indo-Pacific to emerging technologies, Blinken and India covered a lot of ground.
Blinken set the cat among the pigeons by saying that if the Taliban takes Kabul by force, with abuse and violence, theirs would be a “pariah” state. Blinken’s Afghanistan position brings the US closer to India, which raised the legitimacy question when Jaishankar spoke at the UNSC. It came as Wang Yi, Chinese foreign minister was meeting a nine-member Taliban delegation led by Mullah Baradar in Beijing.
The Taliban focus was to get China to pledge “non-interference”, China’s to get Taliban to “fight” and clear out the Uyghur group, ETIM. Afghans have lived with “foreign interference” for centuries, but Chinese nervousness is real – the Taliban are not going to pass up the opportunity to play the ETIM card for future gains.
Biden’s core foreign policy principle, democracy vs autocracy, received play in New Delhi, and Beijing. Blinken’s “democracy” comments were not only directed at the accusations against this Indian government on eroding democracy. This is a core feature of Biden’s foreign policy. Writing in Foreign Affairs, Hal Brands describes the elements of Biden’s foreign policy thus – US must “strengthen cohesion of democratic community” against autocracies; lead in solving global problems like Covid, and reinvest in its own democracy and rebuild its competitiveness.
Hence Blinken’s line, “Democracy, starting with our own, is a work in progress… I certainly do it from a starting point of humility.” Equally unusually, Jaishankar concurred. “The quest for a more perfect union applies as much to the Indian democracy as it does to the American one.” The US was not being prescriptive, and India did not brush reality under the carpet. That’s progress.
India has always thrived when America has looked beyond the horizon. It was one of those moments that began a process of India-US convergence after the deal-breaker nuclear tests of 1998. It was a similar moment that saw India and US work on a nuclear deal that dismantled a technology-denial regime against India in 2008.
Today, we may be approaching a similar moment – on climate and emerging technologies. Both of these were touched on only in passing. But if India does not pick up the signals, this could be the last train out of the platform.
The US is not getting out of “forever wars” in Iraq and Afghanistan to engage in another one with putative superpower China. India is not about to get into an armed conflict with China either. But both countries together have a chance to ‘out-compete’ China, realising the promise of “techno-democracies” versus “techno-autocracies”. India, therefore, needs to pay much greater attention to the most important working group of the Quad – on critical and emerging technologies.
India began de-risking its tech sector from Chinese influence only in 2020, because that was the first time we acknowledged the dangers of China’s “civil-military fusion” policies. That process is under way and has gathered traction. US tech and trade sanctions, and laws going through Congress, make pretty clear where America is headed.
For the moment, the quest is to make up for the global shortage of chips, semiconductors and other hardware as well as 5G. There, the US is looking at working with Japan, Taiwan and South Korea.
Not too long ago, Blinken outlined a US tech-foreign policy, which could be a huge opportunity for India. This includes: reduce national security risks from emerging tech, lead in strategic tech competition, build resilient and secure supply chains; set technical standards for emerging technologies; fight disinformation, reduce misuse of surveillance technology and build tech partnerships.
India is a natural partner – we have a tech universe that just needs less government and more facilitation. For instance, Bangalore is doing more work on 6G than is generally known.
The PM took the S&T portfolio in the recent reshuffle, it cannot stay relegated to a file-pushing junior minister. MEA has created an emerging technologies division – but that’s a waste. We would be better served if we could get private sector folks who can look over the horizon, and the government can make it happen. There will be failures, but that should be okay.
India’s future is as a tech power. Rare earths, spatial computing, hybrid clouds and hyper-automation should matter more than wasting energy over a UN Security Council seat.
The door is open for us. We need to see it.