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US-China tech rivalry will have spillover effects. India must hedge itself

Even as the Indian government is in the process of overhauling its legal framework for regulating technology, the geopolitical environment is becoming complex. On the one hand, the fight over leadership of high-end technology is becoming increasingly contentious and competitive. There is increasing competition for dominance between the US and China that will have spillover effects for countries like India. On the other, countries like India, parts of Africa and regional blocs like the EU are increasingly recognising areas of mutual cooperation, of learning from and adopting scalable and useful technology in cross-border payments, public health systems and e-commerce.

A concurrent trend is the increasing adoption of digital privacy norms that are solidifying around a core set of privacy principles such as privacy-by-design, purpose limitations and user rights to their personal data. Though some room for debate on these issues remain, discussions on privacy principles have increasingly moved on to the specific designs of data protection laws, and to implementation mechanisms. However, other issues related to the transfer of personal data across nation-states, and national security access to personal data remain contested.

Countries like India will not only have to manage the challenges arising from increasing competition, they will also have to make sure the spillover effects of such competition do not hinder cooperation. Lastly, both competition and cooperation can potentially increase or decrease domestic regulatory autonomy in areas like personal data protection.

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On 7 October, the US introduced export controls designed to thwart China’s efforts to acquire or build advanced computer chips. Last month, US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan anticipated this shift in policy by identifying three key technologies – “computing-related technologies, biotech, and clean tech” – as “force multipliers”, and stated that leadership in each is a US national security imperative. A recent piece in Foreign Policy has argued that the move to limit semiconductor exports to China “guarantees a continued march toward broad-based technological decoupling.”

High-end technologies, as the US’s move highlights, will be subjects of increasingly strategic competition, and affect the choices India and other countries make with regard to them. Technology-importing countries will increasingly have to strike a balance between continuing their dependence on countries that possess these technologies, and developing a degree of self-reliance. From the perspective of the global south, it should be wary of the spill-over effects of this competition into areas of cooperation.

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Co-existing with strategic competition, there is the trend of increasing cooperation on digital technologies. One such area has been health. The Covid-19 pandemic saw the increased use of technologically-enabled identification systems used for preventing transmission, and for vaccine delivery. India’s COWIN platform was a forerunner in the latter. This experience has accelerated discussions on adoption of such systems for future pandemic prevention and also for public health systems in general.

A high degree of convergence, diffusion and adoption is possible in the areas of digital infrastructure that support data-enabled services like public health, payments, and e-commerce. In India, this infrastructure was created on the back of a digital ID system (Aadhaar). This enabled subsequent transformations in payment systems, vaccine delivery and so on.

Even before the pandemic, the UN’s report on digital cooperation had mooted the idea of universalising access to digital networks to achieve the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. One of the outcomes of the report has been the idea of “digital public goods” or DPGs. DPGs are open-source software, data, standards and models that incorporate privacy by design and help implement the UN’s SDGs. The Digital Public Goods Alliance registers DPGs that are then promoted by governments and multilateral organisations.

India has been keen to promote the global adoption of its own public digital infrastructure. Aadhaar, IndiaStack, and UPI are being showcased as examples of successful DPGs whose underlying infrastructure can also be adopted by other jurisdictions. At the same time, the mechanisms through which such technologies are deployed, their use cases, and their costs and benefits in different contexts need to be carefully tested and understood. DPGs may have the character of public goods, but their adoption should still be based on market preferences and incentives rather than government fiat.

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Data regulation

Discussions on global data regulation increasingly focus on questions of free flow of data vis-a-vis localisation and issues of data access for law enforcement. Countries are divided on whether or not to impose restrictions on the free flow of data. More than 60 countries now have some form of restriction on data flows. India has such restrictions in telecom and finance and is exploring additional localisation requirements.

The country has the leverage to affect the international approach to the free flow of data because it is a large data market. It may be ceding this leverage by not articulating a clear position while the opportunity exists.

However, the focus on the free flow of data assumes that most other parts of personal data regulation are a given – the focus on consumer consent, purpose limitations, security and storage requirements, etc. It will become harder to create domestic exemptions and carve-outs as these principles solidify, especially as global cooperation and competition both assume countries should make similar design choices in their domestic frameworks. For example, the DPG registry requires privacy by design as a basic requirement before it agrees to register a software, product or design as a DPG. This may be a good thing, but it adopts a standard that is hard to deviate from. The absence of a well-formulated and articulated domestic position on many contentious issues in global data regulation can potentially hurt India as more such norms and standards get created.

As the politics of global technology policy become more complex, India will have to do both — manage any negative spillover effects of the US-China rivalry in technology, and take advantage of the increasing possibilities such competition provides. In the field of technology cooperation, India has created standards and products that it can leverage, provided that questions about use cases and deployment mechanisms are answered. Lastly, India should articulate a well-formulated position on contentious issues surrounding data regulation to take advantage of the evolving situation.

Anirudh Burman is a fellow and associate research director at Carnegie India. Views are personal. 

The article is part of a series examining the geopolitics of technology, which is the theme of Carnegie India’s seventh Global Technology Summit (20 November to 1 December), co-hosted with the Ministry of External Affairs. Click here to register. ThePrint is the digital partner.

(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)

Source: The Print

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