How Ladakh and Doklam played in America’s big tech game

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OWhether the Cold War parallels are appropriate or not, the United States and China are increasingly acting within Cold War frameworks. The Chinese have long kept American businesses out of China, and recently the United States implemented strict measures to prevent Chinese from entering the United States. As a result, the technological cold war is being played out in “new digital battlefields” or “digital swing states”.

According to a methodology designed by NewAmerica.org, the leading digital swing states are Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico, India and Singapore. A regional analysis would suggest that the new digital battlegrounds are Africa, Southeast Asia, Eastern Europe and Central Asia. As Tim Maurer and Robert Morgus point out, focusing on pivotal states such as Brazil, India, Indonesia and Turkey could be extremely profitable for the United States and China. The choices these countries make about emerging technological frameworks could decisively influence the direction of the technology-shaped world order.


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Digital swing state: is India today the China of the 1970s?

Among digital swing states, India stands out as an extremely interesting and relevant case study. In some ways, the United States sees India as the game-changing swing state, as it likely saw China in the 1970s.

The US-India strategic partnership appears 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 main adversary of the United States), but was poorer and eager to be the leader of the communist world. The Chinese and the Soviets had recently fought a war. It was therefore the ideal candidate for the United States to ally and open a second front for the Soviet Union on its border.

Today, India is China’s poorest Asian neighbor (the main adversary of the United States now) and shares several similarities with China. Meanwhile, China and India have had several confrontations over their disputed border in recent years. In many ways, he is the ideal candidate with whom the United States can ally to open a second front for China on its border. The United States does not want to have two simultaneous battlefronts with China and Russia, but it does want China to have multiple battlefronts to fight on.

Relations between the United States and India had improved significantly and steadily over the past two decades, even as relations between India and China had become more tense and nervous over the past decade. Yet there was no certainty, until just three or four years ago, that India would place itself firmly in the American camp.

Around 2014-2015, China’s Big Tech companies had started to become one of the biggest investors in India’s start-up ecosystem, giving fierce competition to top US and Japanese investors. There was this feeling that the alignment, at least from a tech sector perspective, might actually change. Indian entrepreneurs had started visiting Chinese start-ups and tech companies in China instead of Silicon Valley companies, and came back amazed at their scale.

Additionally, the Chinese market seemed more aligned with the challenges and opportunities of the Indian market, so entrepreneurs began to follow China’s lead. Suddenly, startup pitches drew analogies to Chinese companies rather than Silicon Valley companies. And tech start-up conferences were now teeming with young Chinese professionals from Alibaba, Tencent and other major Chinese tech companies.

But then came the border skirmishes in Ladakh and Doklam between India and China. These events could have been the consequences of India’s entry into the American camp or the triggers for it. Anyway, India has now entered quite deeply into the American camp, and it is a great achievement for the United States. It is, I believe, as big a decision as Nixon-Kissinger’s success in boarding China in the 1970s, and could potentially be a game-changer on the world map.

The United States has been able to shift India’s orientation towards the American camp far more decisively than it has ever done in the past. But India needs to think very carefully about what the alliance with the United States will mean for its strategic autonomy. As Shivshankar Menon argued in his recent book, India and Asian geopolitics, current global dynamics, in fact, make strengthening our strategic autonomy – and working closely with all major powers – an even more important imperative for India. India must also remain prepared for the longer term when strategic alignments or calculations shift again, as they inevitably do.


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The future of alliances

The frameworks of alliances, as well as the nature and future of alliances, are changing. The dominant framework of alliances and partnerships remains uncertain for the time being. However, it is clear that the Great Tech Game and the growing geopolitical, economic and technological competition between the United States and China will shape future alliances and directions.

Traditionally, alliances or partnerships have been determined by economic or security considerations, strategic geographic locations or historical cultural affinities. But a new dimension has been added. Countries that are important from a technological perspective – either as large digital markets or as countries that are technologically advanced or have key resources for technology supply chains – also assume greater importance as potential allies and partners.

India, for example, has become a much more attractive ally given these new considerations. It’s more than a high-value digital market that big tech companies – American, European and Chinese – all want a piece of. It is also a strategically important pivot state in the battle for technological and geopolitical dominance between the United States and China. Previously, Pakistan’s strategic geographical location (vis-à-vis Afghanistan) meant that the United States was always quite keen to maintain good relations with Pakistan while intensifying its strategic partnership with India. But now India is all the more important to the United States, especially given new technologies and China-centric considerations. Unsurprisingly, we see Pakistan sinking further into the Chinese camp and India firmly into the American camp.

Future alliances in the 21st century will be more than military alliances. As Mira Rapp-Hooper suggests, alliances that go beyond the military dimensions and work together on the 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, the allies will not necessarily need to increase their defense spending. Rather, they could contribute significantly through existing resources such as intelligence agencies, foreign ministries, technology companies and professionals, hacker groups, and national security establishments.

A strategic overhaul will therefore be necessary for all countries, large and small, as technology will shape nature and purpose 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 is published with permission from HarperCollins India.

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