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'Quad can pool resources to prevent China from dominating global tech'

Surjit Bhalla, co-chair of the Mumbai-based Gateway House Economy and Technology Taskforce. (Reuters)Premium
Surjit Bhalla, co-chair of the Mumbai-based Gateway House Economy and Technology Taskforce. (Reuters)

  • Lisa Curtis and Surjit Bhalla, co-chairs of the Mumbai-based Gateway House Economy and Technology Taskforce discuss ways on how the Quad can scale up economic and tech collaboration.
  • India, with its womanpower can make a huge contribution to development across the board in tech, pharma, they say.

With China seeking to control and dominate supply chains of critical minerals and technologies, the Quad—the US, India, Japan and Australia, have a major role in pushing back Beijing’s plans, say Lisa Curtis and Surjit Bhalla, co-chairs of the Mumbai-based Gateway House Economy and Technology Taskforce that is looking at how the Quad can scale up economic and tech collaboration. Developing regulatory frameworks for the subsea cable market, for instance, is one area where the Quad can make a mark. Coordinating with technologically advanced Asian democracies like South Korea and Taiwan can also help bolster the Quad’s strategy is vis à vis China, they say. Edited excerpts from the interview.

You have had your task force meeting on cooperation among Quad countries in tech intensive areas. What is the scope for collaboration in the tech sector?

Curtis: The Quad countries have a role to play in ensuring technology bolsters democratic development, rather than strengthening autocratic trends in the Indo-Pacific region. More specifically, they have a common interest in meeting the challenge of China seeking to control the supply chains for certain critical minerals and technologies and to dominate the development of emerging technologies. The Quad also has a role to play in pushing back against Chinese efforts to influence global technology standard-setting, which is often at odds with the goal of maintaining a free, open, and liberal digital order. Lastly, the Quad can pool its resources and capabilities to prevent China from dominating the digital development of regions like Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands. By combining their resources and expertise, and bringing to bear shared democratic values that must guide technological development, the four powerful nations can succeed in shaping the landscape in which new technologies will emerge and protecting access to critical minerals and technologies.

Bhalla: The pandemic has underscored the divergences among countries in their productivity and growth. China is now a dominant player in the world economy – and has a pointedly different governance structure. The challenge for the Quad and their allies is to move towards a level playing field in several important areas, particularly with regard to technology development and diffusion. India has the second-largest share of women STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) graduates in the world, at over 40%, more than Sweden or the US. India has the second highest number of female CEOs in the world. India, with its skilled manpower, or more specifically, womanpower, can make a huge contribution to development and expansion across the board in tech, pharma etc. We will contribute to the Quad in the development of technologies.

The areas that your task force has focused on are—undersea cables as infrastructure, supply chains in critical minerals, pharmaceuticals, fintech, cybersecurity, space and 6G. Do you see the Quad collaborating with other countries to achieve their goals?

Curtis: A ripe area for Quad cooperation is on undersea fiber-optic cables that carry 95 % of global data. The Quad nations bring unique strengths to the challenge of China’s increasing involvement in subsea cable construction. For instance, the US and Japanese companies account for about 70 % of the subsea cable market while India is a key landing point for cables that transit the Indian Ocean and Australia has been instrumental in developing regulatory frameworks for protection of undersea cables. The Quad should coordinate closely with technologically advanced Asian democracies like South Korea and Taiwan as well as European nations, which also favour the development of resilient supply chains for critical and emerging technologies and liberal standard-setting for technological development. Given South Korea’s leading role in 5G technology and Taiwan’s leadership in the most sophisticated semiconductor technology, any Quad initiatives in these areas must also involve these nations.

Bhalla: Given the China challenge – both in politics and economics – it is important that the Quad seek expansion with other like-minded countries like Israel, Bangladesh, Taiwan, Singapore and South Korea.

What kind of collaboration can there be among the Quad member states on 6G given that none of the countries possess any proprietary tech on 5G? There was some talk of collaboration in the 5G space between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and former US President Donald Trump but that did not go too far from what I gather.

Curtis: The Trump administration had raised awareness of the dangers of relying on Chinese 5G technology. India was less receptive to the message a few years ago as it weighed the economic advantage of relying on cheap Chinese technology with the potential security risks of sabotage and espionage. The 2020 India-China border crisis appears to have tipped the balance in favour of those arguing against relying on Chinese technology due to the security risks as India recently rejected Chinese firms’ involvement in its 5G trials.

Space, fintech and pharmaceutical manufacture are areas that India can contribute to in achieving Quad goals. Any other areas you feel that India can specifically help?

Curtis: India can help in setting global norms and standards for the development and use of emerging technologies. India, being a technologically advanced vibrant democracy, should have an influential voice in international bodies setting global technological standards. Due to the recent global shortage of semiconductors, this sector received special attention in the Biden administration's supply chain review, the initial findings of which were released two weeks ago. The US has a shortage of high-tech talent and may look to India's tech talent base to reach its goals in the semiconductor industry. It will take some time for India to ramp up its own domestic semiconductor industry, so it's unlikely India will contribute directly to relieving the current semiconductor shortage. However, India's growing number of high-tech skilled workers suggests the US and India will ramp up programmes for joint research and development and to facilitate the movement of high-skilled workers across borders.

Bhalla: It is speculated that work-at-home will increase by 10-20%, and that India, because of large and talented skilled labour, can be a major beneficiary of this trend. For “research" industries like technology, pharma, semi-conductors, the cost advantages of work at home can be large and a significant contributor to cost-advantages and world competition. China has the manpower, and will power, but it's running into problems in the medium term. It's past the curve of growth on age, tech, on the frontier. India is on the upswing, China is on the downswing. The other Quad states are steady states.

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