Home >opinion >The geopolitical prowess of science and technology

In a recent article in the Financial Times, US secretary of commerce Wilbur Ross accused China of stealing the “American genius". Ross underscores two themes—one that China and the US are bound for a long tussle and, two, that science and technology (S&T) is part of geopolitics. China aspires to be a technology leader but the US stands in its way. China will go to any length to win—from mandatory technology transfers to strategic investments in disruptive American ventures.

S&T has long been regarded as important for economic growth—in fact, Edwin Mansfield and Joseph Alois Schumpeter considered technological change as one of the most important factors, if not the factor. And as we see from the jockeying between the US and China, S&T is also a crucial tool to pursue a geopolitical agenda and build strategic leverage in international affairs.

Indeed, S&T is critical for ensuring national security and opening new market opportunities. Moreover, economic competitiveness has become a proxy for military influence. Ownership of superior technology brings greater power and control. To build capacity, nations rely on several policy levers—patent laws, tax incentives, and grants to labs—to spur the public sector, private enterprise and academia.

Take the example of middle powers such as Canada and Switzerland. It is their S&T capabilities that help them stay relevant in the international arena. Estonia is another remarkable example of how a country can leverage its digital ecosystem to boost its position in the international arena.

Similarly, Israel—a small country with a complicated past in an unforgiving neighbourhood—has been able to consistently punch above its weight because of its technological prowess. In fact, one of the reasons for India’s recent tilt towards Israel is the latter’s strength in S&T, especially in agriculture. In other words, Israel’s thriving high-tech ecosystem serves the triple purpose of boosting economic growth, ensuring national security, and offering international leverage.

For the past 50 years, the US has been the world’s superpower. It is no coincidence that the period correlates with America’s leadership in S&T. The increased pace of scientific development came at the beginning of World War I with the establishment of the Council of National Defence and the National Research Council. World War II also had a dramatic impact—leading to the development of the atomic weapon and the radar. Foundations of Silicon Valley were laid during and because of the war. The Cold War gave a big push to the US space programme.

American’s Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency is a national treasure—it gave birth to the internet and the global positioning system (GPS), and ushered in an unparalleled era of US hegemony. The military and the Central Intelligence Agency maintain separate arms investing in the world’s leading technologies.

Alphabet and Palantir are private businesses but can act as proxies for their state—and they do play a geopolitical role. Google’s origins can be traced to a grant from the National Science Foundation.

Facebook has some data centres offshore but it is a distinctly American corporation which controls large amounts of data generated around the world. This is power in today’s age. The US continues in its leadership position because of its enviable university system and islands of excellence such as Boston and Seattle.

According to Sophie Roborgh at the Hague Centre for Strategic Studies, Chinese innovation policy is a “geopolitical instrument to gain economic... And military supremacy". China aspires for global domination and it is playing the long game. Innovation takes centre stage and it is seen through geopolitical glasses. China has identified 10 technology areas as part of its New Industry Policy 2025 and aims to become an “innovative country". Some have begun to call this the Beijing Consensus.

China’s investments in clean energy and space have made technology an “important pawn in the power play between the West and China", argues Roborgh. China is challenging America’s dominance of the knowledge economy. Former US energy secretary Steven Chu considers this to be a “Sputnik moment", drawing analogies to the Cold War space race between the US and the Soviet Union. Today, China aims to become a superpower in Artificial Intelligence, leading to a technology race with the US. In biotechnology, there is already a US-China dispute over genetic data. China controls 70% of all the mining capacity of bitcoins and it is giving researchers significant financial incentives to publish in reputed journals. The Chinese government also invests strategically in the US, particularly in Silicon Valley.

At home, as India rediscovers its foreign policy mojo, it must act on similar lines. India’s recent efforts to shore up its domestic defence manufacturing industry, develop a regional satellite for South Asia and a home-grown GPS, as well as establish 20 world-class universities, are all steps in the right direction.

But a quick look at the numbers shows how much still needs to be done. As per the 2015 report by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, the US spent $433 billion—that’s 2.7% of its GDP—on research and development (R&D) in 2013. South Korea and Israel each spent 4% of their GDP while China is targeting 2.5% by 2020. India currently spends only 0.9% of GDP on R&D.

To move forward, India needs to recognize the geopolitical reality of S&T. It needs to identify focus areas, analyse what kind of role it can play and where the state can make tactical investments overseas. More specifically, India needs to build the infrastructure which can generate new technologies. It needs to invest in human capital, maintain a cadre of top scientists and professionals, and develop industry-lab links.

Vinayak Dalmia is an entrepreneur.

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