On May 6, APARC’s South Asia Initiative hosted its inaugural conference, on the theme of “A New Agenda for Indian Competitiveness." India faces an intensifying strategic competition with China that will affect not only Indian national security but also the nature of the international system in the Indo-Pacific region. The trajectory of that competition will hinge increasingly on emerging technologies – from artificial intelligence to biotechnology. India’s ability to research, develop, and deploy such technologies will shape not only its military power but also its resilience and self-sufficiency, which the Indian government sees as key national goals in a post-pandemic world. To develop these technologies, India’s national security establishment will need new policy settings — including new relationships with private industry — and new ways of cooperating with key partners, especially the United States.
To that end, the South Asia Initiative’s conference brought together three stakeholder groups that rarely convene in the same forum: academic researchers, government policymakers, and technology industry leaders. The conference’s aim was to create a community of interest among these groups, sensitizing them to the importance of India as a key developer and user of emerging technologies, and conversely, to the importance of those technologies for Indian security and U.S.-India relations.
The conference’s discussions were led and framed by Stanford research scholars and faculty, but they were directed towards addressing policy problems. What role do these technologies play, for example, in military power? How can government and industry best cooperate to foster innovation in defense technology? How can start-up firms navigate this rapidly evolving ecosystem? The conference did not aim to solve any of those problems, but it did seek to start the discussion that might ultimately generate new pathways for U.S.-India cooperation on technology — paths that are better suited to the nature of today’s strategic competition and more rooted in the nature of today’s technology industry.
India’s Defence Secretary, Dr. Ajay Kumar, in the conference’s opening keynote address, laid out some of the challenges facing India. He noted that a handful of large and inefficient Defence Public Sector Undertakings (DPSUs) account for some 90-95% of Indian defense production, but those DPSUs have a negligible presence in the global market. In large part this is because Indian defense production has comprised of licensed manufacturing or simply assembly and integration of foreign-sourced components, traditionally but decreasingly from Russia. To realize the objective of greater national self-reliance in defense, India recognizes the need to cultivate greater private-sector technology development, and harness the economic potential of dual-use (civilian and military) technologies. India could even seek to leapfrog generations of technology, by focusing on developing the digital technologies that lie at the center of much of contemporary defense innovation. This will only be possible if India encourages greater private-sector research and development, reduces onerous government regulations, and fosters a healthier start-up ecosystem.
Dr. Kumar also reflected on the lessons of the ongoing war in Ukraine. He suggested that it underscored to India the importance of national self-reliance; India now sees its dependence on Russia as a challenge. It also revealed the importance of surprise, not only tactically but in the asymmetric or innovative capabilities a country is able to field against its enemy.
In the conference’s other keynote address, the Under-Secretary of State for Economic Growth, Energy, and the Environment, Jose W. Fernandez addressed the role of technology in broader U.S.-India bilateral relationship. Technology is at the heart of addressing climate change, one of the most pressing strategic challenges facing the United States and India. The two countries are prioritizing the development and protection of cyberspace and telecommunications, as engines of the burgeoning digital economy across the world. From climate to cyberspace, cooperation on technology policies and facilitating private sector cooperation is not only central to the bilateral relationship but also a vital alternative to other actors that seek to use technology for their own, less democratic interests. To address these challenges, India and the United States must strike the right regulatory balance, to support transparent governance, and foster innovation; they must widen their cooperation to include other like-minded countries; and they must facilitate a more balanced flow of educational exchange to strengthen people-to-people links.
Mr. Fernandez further noted that the United States and India work together through various mechanisms. The Quad, for example, is a key multiplier for both U.S. and Indian policy, and India has deepened its cooperation with the Quad. Strategic competition with China requires a common positive vision for the region — an agenda spanning, for example, health, infrastructure, and food security.
The South Asia Initiative’s inaugural conference succeeded in bringing together a new constellation of stakeholders concerned with the role of technology in India’s strategic competitiveness. It initiated a vital conversation on how policymakers and industry can promote defense innovation, in the context of the wider US-India relationship. Critically, for APARC, it also spotlighted some complex issues that merit further scholarly investigation. The South Asia Initiative will incorporate those observations as it continues to develop its lines of research effort in the coming months and years.