A strong case for self-reliance and greater use of made in India products were the focus of Prime Minister Modi’s recent nationwide address. However, for the cash strapped economy whose manufacturing base is currently low compared to its potential, this is a real challenge. We first have to increase demand for indigenous products to match the quality of world-class ones, which a large segment of the population has come to enjoy post-liberalization. We must also boost exports. Therefore, India needs to qualitatively scale up its manufacturing base and technological capacity to keep pace, if not become a leader in modern technologies. This will depend on building an efficient digital economy, improving digital connectivity, upgrading infrastructure, and creating cutting edge communication technologies.
In order to succeed in its new policy direction, India will have to seek new partnerships. This will allow it to gain access to high tech, advanced technologies, and sophisticated hardware to complement its indigenous capabilities. It will also have to attract substantial foreign direct investment from world leaders in advanced technologies and willing, non-traditional, and under-utilized relationships. The USA and Taiwan adequately fit the bill.
India–US relations have never been stronger and more stable than in the last six years. This began in the beginning of the century with the unfolding of the Next Stage of the Strategic Partnership, and the landmark India-US civil nuclear cooperation deal. Thereafter, the US has shared very sensitive technology in the defense and science and technology sectors. The security relationship has been strengthened with the signing of three crucial defense-related agreements on logistics, communication, and the interoperability of militaries, previously reserved only for the USA’s closest allies. Intelligence sharing in security-related matters have also evolved exponentially. The potential for transfer of state of the art technology in telecommunication, AI, robotics, and in the most critical areas of space and defense can be accessed with enhanced mutual understanding. These can accommodate US interests without giving up the desired strategic autonomy that India has cherished and will continue to. COVID 19 has brought this complementarity relationship more into sharper focus. The vast reservoir of Indian American talent at the helm of leading technology companies is an added advantage.
Let’s now take a look at the other foreign alternatives. India can gain access to world-class technology from the US, Russian Federation, Western Europe, Japan, S. Korea, or China. The US is India’s largest trading partner and practically all its major MNCs are here. Russia, although historically a very friendly country to India, is seen to be drifting closer to the Chinese, which has exploited its need for finance and intense rivalry from the US. On the other hand, Western Europe is turning inwards with fresh challenges posed by Brexit, and the crumbling economies of many EU countries. Advanced technology is available with France and Germany, but while they can supplement American technologies, they cannot replace them. With Japan, the pace of cooperation has been surprisingly slow, despite converging interests. South Korea has emerged as a stable technology partner but it has its own geo-strategic compulsions. China is a great source of technology and offers competitive pricing particularly in telecommunications, robotics, AI, quantum computing, IoT, cyberspace, but cooperation in these areas can only be expected to be a one-way street. China cannot conceivably be a partner to India’s growing strength and profile in these areas due to historical rivalry and competing interests.
The US is an obvious choice; the two countries are natural allies. As a superpower, it is expected to promote its own interests and that can make it intrusive, selfish, and self-serving. We are and must be aware of our security interests and be self-confident about imbibing the best in technology without compromising our national security. China exemplified this position through-the the 80s and 90s and still continues despite retaining an intensely competitive relationship. India can take a leaf out of the China rapid development story. The US needs India as much as India needs the US — to bring stability to a very economically vibrant, mineral and energy-rich, and vital Indo-Pacific region.
While the Quad can potentially provide a useful platform to manage or even resist the increasingly assertive moves by China, with India’s urgent need to gain access to technologies with minimum barriers of license and export restrictions, Taiwan becomes an invaluable resource. India needs a stable, strengthened and mutually beneficial long-term bilateral relationship with Taiwan to strengthen its trade, investment, scientific, and innovation technology fields.
In order to preserve and lend stability to such a relationship, an extended triangular relationship that includes the US should be considered. Such an informal arrangement can serve as a geostrategic and economic counterbalance to China. At the same time, and of equal importance, it will give more salience to a closer and long term stable relationship between India and Taiwan, which, unfortunately, has not been consistent over the years. To this end, India must support the resumption of Taiwan’s Observer status at the World Health Organisation and its participation in the World Health Assembly meetings. A sustained, long term India-Taiwan partnership in trade, investment, and advanced technology, that aligns with the US, is imperative in the post COVID world.
The author is a former Special Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India