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India-US forging tech alliance since long. Now use 2+2 dialogue to push it further

At the fourth edition of India-US 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue, first under Biden administration, the two sides will likely focus on strengthening partnership in emerging tech.

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The new world order is increasingly defined and influenced by critical and emerging technologies. The major powers are competing to develop and deploy these technologies to shape economic and military balance to their advantage. While the US-China technology competition and concern over Beijing’s use of newly acquired technological power in support of its expansionist goal is growing; India and the US increasingly share a common objective of a strong partnership in critical and emerging technologies. As the fourth edition of India-US 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue, first under the Joe Biden administration, takes place in Washington DC today, the two sides are expected to focus on this critical aspect of their partnership among other key areas of cooperation.

Both President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Narendra Modi are emphasising on the use of emerging technologies to address the 21st century challenges including health, energy, climate change, education, cyber, defence and security. Hence, the two leaders at their first Summit in September 2021 underscored the growing importance of “critical and emerging technologies in delivering economic growth and achieving strategic priorities”. Though the role of emerging technologies like chips, Artificial Intelligence (AI), 5G network, etc., have increased significantly, the technologies themselves cannot solve the problems. Importantly, many of the challenges like pandemics, cyber and digital threats, and climate change have no borders and no single nation can effectively address them. There is a need for cooperation, collaboration and collective action to address these threats and challenges.

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Joint effort by India and US

The Modi government’s Atma Nirbhar Bharat Mission and its emphasis on the use of emerging technologies to meet the developmental goals as well as combating global threats and challenges complements with that of the US. Notably, India is fast emerging as a powerhouse for new technologies and it offers immense opportunities for bilateral technology cooperation. US tech companies like Google, Amazon, Microsoft have already made big investments in India. On the other hand, President Biden, in the Interim National Security Strategic Guidance in March 2021, expressed his desire to develop strong partnership with key allies like India in critical and emerging technologies.

In 2020, India’s Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) announced the establishment of the New, Emerging and Strategic Technologies (NEST) Division, which will engage in technology diplomacy and deal with foreign policy and international legal aspects of the critical and emerging technologies. On the other hand, the recently created US National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence (NSCAI), in its October 2020 report, asked the State Department and Defence Department to formally negotiate with India on developing cooperation in emerging technologies. It urged the administration to create a US-India Strategic Tech Alliance (USISTA) with an objective to make India a focal point of the American foreign policy and an overarching Indo-Pacific strategy focused on emerging technology and India’s increasingly important geo-political role.

Consequently, the two sides launched the US-India Artificial Intelligence (USIAI) Initiative in March 2021 to scale up science and technology cooperation. The USIAI focuses on AI cooperation in critical areas that are priorities for both countries such as healthcare, energy, agriculture, smart cities and manufacturing sector. It is an India-US Science and Technology Forum (IUSSTF)’s initiative, which is funded by the US State Department and India’s Department of Science and Technology (DST). The two countries also joined the Global Partnership on Artificial Intelligence (GPAI) in June 2020 as founding members to support the responsible and human centric development and use of AI.

Meanwhile, for advancing defence and strategic technology cooperation, the US recognised India as a Major Defence Partner (MDP) in 2016 and elevated India’s status to Tier I of the Strategic Trade Authorization (STA) licence exception in 2018 which will help facilitate advanced technology cooperation between the two countries to a level similar to the US’ key strategic partners and allies. The two sides have also signed the Industrial Security Annex (ISA), which protects classified information and technology being used in the defence transfers of co-production involving private companies, and the Statement of Intent (SoI) on science and technology cooperation. The two sides also completed the signing of the foundational agreements, that is, the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) in 2016, Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) in 2018, and Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) for Geo-Spatial Cooperation in 2020 which will further facilitate defence and strategic technology cooperation.

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Boost in trade

As a result of the positive trends in bilateral relations and sustained efforts made by the leaders of the two countries, India-US trade has increased from $19 billion in 2000 to $146.1 billion in 2019. India-US defence trade increased from almost negligible before 2008 to over $21 billion in 2021. The US export to India reached $27.4 billion in 2020 where only 1.9 per cent was subject to the US Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Industry Security (BIS) licence requirement. The US exported 9.2 per cent under BIS no licence required and 1.2 per cent under a BIS licence exception. Consequently, the US has emerged as a key supplier of defence and strategic technologies to India.

Moreover, during the first Quad Leadership Summit in March 2021, the leaders of Australia, Japan, India and the US launched a working group on critical and emerging technologies, in addition to the working groups on health and climate change. The critical and emerging technology group aims at facilitating cooperation on international standards and innovation technologies. In the September 2021 first in-person Quad Leaders’ Summit in Washington DC and in March 2022 virtual summit, they further strengthened their partnership in the critical and emerging technologies by organising their efforts on “technical standards, 5G diversification and deployment, horizon-scanning, and technology supply chains”. In the Indo-Pacific Strategy of the United States February 2022 document, the US also seeks to “promote new partnerships for cutting-edge joint research in critical domains of science and technology.”

Aimed at accelerating high technology commerce, President Biden and Prime Minister Modi, in the September 2021 joint statement, decided to revive the High Technology Cooperation Group (HTCG) in early 2022, but it is yet to take place. The HTCG was established in November 2002 to promote and facilitate strategic trade while addressing the export control laws. Indeed, a strong India-US partnership in the field of emerging technologies is in mutual interest and will help address the 21st century challenges. However, the two countries need to sharpen their focus on technology transfer, joint design and production of new and emerging technologies because no worthwhile strategic partnership can be built unless both nations make substantial progress in this field. Technology transfer and co-production of high techs in defence and strategic sectors would remain a critical measure of India-US strategic partnership and the “acid test” of US commitment to building a strategic tech-alliance.

Saroj Bishoyi is a Strategic Affairs Analyst with main research focus on USA, India–US Relations and Indo-Pacific. He tweets @BishoyiSaroj. Views are personal.

(Edited by Prashant)

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