Whether the parallels to the Cold War are appropriate or not, the US and China are increasingly acting as per Cold War frameworks. The Chinese have kept US companies out of China for long, and recently, the US has put in place strict measures to keep the Chinese out of the US. As a result, the tech cold war is being played out in the ‘new digital battlegrounds’ or the ‘digital swing states’.
As per a methodology designed by NewAmerica.org, the top digital swing states are Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico, India and Singapore. A region-wise analysis would suggest that the new digital battlegrounds are Africa, South East Asia, Eastern Europe and Central Asia. As Tim Maurer and Robert Morgus point out, focusing on swing states such as Brazil, India, Indonesia and Turkey could pay off massively for the US and China. The choices these countries make on emerging technological frameworks could decisively influence the direction of the tech-shaped world order.
Digital swing state: Is India today the China of the 1970s?
Of the digital swing states, India stands out as an extremely interesting, and relevant, case study. In some ways, the US is looking at India as the game-changing swing state, as it likely saw China in the 1970s.
The US–India strategic partnership seems to have many parallels with the US–China alliance struck by Nixon and Kissinger in the 1970s. In the 1970s, China was a state that shared many similarities with the Soviet Union (the key US opponent) but was poorer and hungry to be the leader of the communist world. The Chinese and the Soviets had fought a war recently. So, it was the perfect candidate for the US to ally with, and open up a second front for the Soviet Union on its border.
Today, India is the poorer Asian neighbour of China (the key US opponent now) and shares several similarities with China. At the same time, China and India have had several face-offs on their disputed border in recent years. In many ways, it is the perfect candidate for the US to ally with to open up a second front for China on its border. The US doesn’t want to have two simultaneous battlefronts with China and Russia, but it does want China to have multiple battlefronts to fight on.
The US–India relationship had been improving significantly and steadily for the last two decades, even as the India–China relationship had been getting more tense and jittery over the last decade. Yet, there was no certainty, until just three or four years ago, that India would firmly place itself in the US camp.
Around 2014–15, the Chinese Big Tech firms had started to become some of the largest investors in the Indian start-up ecosystem, giving tough competition to the largest American and Japanese investors. There was this sense that the alignment, at least from a technology sector standpoint, might actually change. Indian entrepreneurs had started visiting the Chinese start-ups and tech firms in China instead of Silicon Valley firms, and had come back amazed at their scale.
Moreover, the Chinese market seemed more aligned with the challenges and opportunities in the Indian market, so entrepreneurs started to follow the China example. Suddenly, start-up pitches were drawing analogies with Chinese companies rather than Silicon Valley companies. And tech start-up conferences were now swarming with young Chinese professionals from Alibaba, Tencent and other such Chinese Big Tech firms.
But then came the border skirmishes in Ladakh and Doklam between India and China. These events might have been the consequences of India moving into the US camp or the triggers for it. Regardless, India has now moved quite deep into the US camp, and that is a big achievement for the US. It is, I believe, as significant a move as the Nixon–Kissinger achievement in getting China on board in the 1970s, and could potentially be the game-changer on the world map.
The US has been able to change India’s orientation towards the US camp much more decisively than it ever had in the past. But India must think very carefully about what the alliance with the US will mean for its strategic autonomy. As Shivshankar Menon has argued in his recent book, India and Asian Geopolitics, the current world dynamics, in fact, make strengthening our strategic autonomy—and working closely with all major powers—an even bigger imperative for India. India must also remain prepared for the longer-term when alignments or strategic calculations shift again, as they inevitably do.
The Future of Alliances
The frameworks for alliances, as well as the nature and future of alliances, are changing. The dominant framework for alliances and partnerships remains uncertain for now. However, it is clear that the Great Tech Game and the growing geopolitical, economic and technological competition between the US and China will shape future alliances and orientations.
Traditionally, alliances or partnerships have been determined by either economic or security considerations, strategic geographical locations, or historical cultural affinities. But a new dimension has been added. Countries that are important from a technology perspective— either as large digital markets or as technologically advanced nations or having critical resources for technology supply chains—are also assuming greater importance as potential allies and partners.
India, for example, has become a much more attractive ally, given these changed considerations. It is more than just a large-value digital market that the Big Tech firms—American, European and Chinese— all want a share of. It is also a strategically important swing state in the battle for technological and geopolitical dominance between the US and China. Earlier, Pakistan’s strategic geographical location (vis-à-vis Afghanistan) meant that the US was always quite keen to maintain good relations with Pakistan at the same time as it stepped up its strategic partnership with India. But now, India is just that much more important, especially given the new technology- and China-driven considerations, for the US. Not surprisingly, we are seeing Pakistan move deeper into the China camp, and India firmly into the US camp.
Future alliances in the twenty-first century will be more than military alliances. As Mira Rapp-Hooper suggests, alliances that go beyond military dimensions and work together on technological, space, intelligence and cyber dimensions will end up being more effective and productive. For such cooperation, as new groupings like the Quad and AUKUS are beginning to do, allies will not necessarily need to raise their defence spending. Rather, they could contribute significantly through existing resources such as intelligence agencies, foreign ministries, technology firms and professionals, hacker groups, and national security establishments.
A strategic rethink will therefore be needed for all countries, big and small, as technology will shape the nature and raison d’être for alliances. Countries that manage to build unique cyber weapons or cyber- capabilities will be in demand.
This excerpt from ‘The Great Tech Game: Shaping Geopolitics and the Destinies of Nations’ by Anirudh Suri has been published with permission from HarperCollins India.