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iCET has potential to take US-India ties to next level: Arun Singh

iCET has potential to take US-India ties to next level: Arun Singh

The newly unveiled Initiative on critical and emerging information technology (iCET) has the potential to take the US-India collaboration to the next level, former Indian envoy to the US Arun Singh said in an exclusive interview with Mint.

Singh said, India and the US have thus far been unable to achieve major successes in critical and defence technologies. He also believes that the rise of China as well as India’s market size and strength in the technology sector have driven the US towards closer cooperation.

How does iCET enhance the India-US relationship? What are its strategic implications?

With the decisions taken at the meeting of the National Security Advisers of India and US, iCET has launched the mechanisms for the two countries to explore and deepen collaboration in several critical and emerging technologies, including artificial intelligence, quantum, 6G, space, semiconductors and biotech. This is significant for several reasons: economic and technological partnership between India and US has, so far, lagged behind the growing strategic convergence. The two countries have found it difficult to even work out limited trade agreements, because of existing interests on both sides. iCET has the potential to establish new areas of research and production collaboration … It is generally accepted that CETs are bringing in a “perfect storm” of technology that is going to transform the way we live and work. Enhanced effort at national level and collaboration for “secure and trusted” supply chains can work to India’s gain. After the India-US civil nuclear cooperation agreement of 2008, US declaring India a Major Defense Partner in 2016 and then placing India on STA1 for higher level technology releases, iCET has the potential to take academic, industrial and government level collaboration to yet another level.

Earlier technology collaboration initiatives between India and America like the Defence Trade and Technology Initiative (DTTI) are seen to have under-delivered. Is there a particular reason for that? How can iCET avoid those pitfalls?

My sense is that the two systems did not then have any deep experience of collaboration in defence technologies. There was a mismatch between expectations and possibilities. The US system also has its complications in that the government has power to authorize or deny, but technology is held by private companies who also factor in their commercial interest and strategies. A strong defence supply relationship between India and US picked up only after the civil nuclear cooperation agreement in 2008. Since then India has contracted to buy around $20 billion of defence equipment from the US. The two countries have now signed agreements on logistics support, communication security and sharing of geo- spatial information. They do more bilateral military exercises with each other than with most other countries, with learnings for inter- operability. Indian companies are also now participating in the global supply chain of US companies, in the last five years about 35% of our defence exports are estimated to have taken place through the supply chain of US companies. I believe, therefore, that we are now better placed to explore collaboration in cutting edge technologies, including in defence. I understand senior officials from DRDO and representatives from some of our defence companies were in the US for the meetings of the two NSAs.

How much has the China factor driven collaboration on iCET?

There is no doubt that the economic, technological and military challenge that the US perceives from China is a driving force behind many of its current strategies. It is strengthening its alliances and partnerships in the Indo- Pacific, enhancing its military presence in Japan and Philippines, reviving cooperation with Pacific island countries, has done the AUKUS agreement with Australia and UK for nuclear propulsion submarines, revitalised the Quad with India, Japan and Australia. US leaders have now said, on several occasions, that they welcome the rise of India, see it to be in their own interest, and as an important element in their effort to “shape the environment around the rise of China”, so that countries in the region have options other than succumbing to China’s unilateralist demand and actions.

While the China challenge would no doubt be a factor in the positive response we are seeing in the US to encouraging iCET, this is not the only reason. India’s current and potential market size, its reservoir of skilled high tech human capital are also among the drivers. Many US companies are doing cutting edge R&D in India. It has been argued that if the US is to meet the technology challenge from China with its 1.4 billion population, it will need partnership with a country such as India with a similar population size. Indian origin CEOs in US companies, Indian origin tech entrepreneurs and skilled employees are today an integral part of the US maintaining its global leadership in several technology areas.

There has been much talk of major fractures in the global innovation and technological ecosystems because of US-China competition. Will iCET, which deepens collaboration between two Quad nations, exacerbate this general trend?

Fractures in the global innovation and technological ecosystems are being attempted because of perceptions related to China not maintaining international norms in intellectual property, using subsidies and State support to to build capacity at the expense of others among other issues. In the US, too, since 2016, there has been exacerbated demand for trade retaliation and technology restrictions against China which is seen as siphoning away manufacturing jobs. However, this is not an easy or universally accepted approach. Companies in the West, heavily invested in China or dependent on the Chinese market are resisting change or worry that decoupling could rebound negatively on them if China uses the denials to develop its own technology alternatives.

In this background, the objective of iCET is not to deepen fractures, but to enhance opportunities for industry and academia in the two countries that now see each other as beneficial for establishing trusted and secure supply chains.