Priorities for a Technology Foreign Policy for India



Trisha Ray | Akhil Deo | Observer Research Foundation

Across the world, state behaviour is increasingly being shaped by a desire to acquire, secure or manipulate emerging technologies or the supply chains that produce them. This emerging friction will continue to accelerate as ‘techno-nationalism’ increasingly underpins industrial and trade policy choices. The United States (US) and China—the largest poles of innovation, technology and finance in the international system—are the primary drivers of this new moment. Countries from Asia, Africa, Latin America and Europe are also increasingly concerned about their sovereign powers over emerging technology ecosystems and their implications on social, political, economic and strategic relations.

At the same time, international rules and institutions that manage the global technology system remain largely in a state of flux. Multilateral negotiations on state behaviour in cyberspace are fractured; international negotiations relating to lethal autonomous weapons often end in stalemates; e-commerce regulations are mired in debates around equity and security; standard-setting organisations have become a new frontier for exerting geo-economic influence; and methodologies for how to quantify the digital economy are still unsettled, even as data flows have replaced traditional goods and services as the driver of globalisation.

These headwinds will have an impact on India’s ambition, as laid out by the Ministry of Electronics and IT, to grow its digital economy to US$ 1 trillion by 2025. This, even as the country seeks to ride on the wave of growth that will be enabled by IoT, quantum computing and AI. With massive investments flooding into emerging technologies across the board, the global market for AI alone is expected to reach US$ 169,411.8 million in 2025. It is no surprise then that Indian companies are amongst the early adopters of AI, behind only China and the US. A second,  perhaps more exigent concern in the minds of Indian policy thinkers, would be managing India’s demographic dividend, when India’s working age population will be at its peak—a pattern that is projected to end in 2055.

Many of these new entrants to India’s workforce will turn to technology-linked jobs, including coding, those related to the gig economy, or in startups. Indeed, India has already emerged as a data labelling giant: homegrown platforms like iMerit and Playment cater to an extensive list of international clients. iMerit alone generated US$6.58 million in annual revenue in 2018. Moreover, with nearly 390 million internet users (with another 40 million predicted to be added every year for the next decade), India’s connected populations present many opportunities for homegrown applications.

Amidst this global and domestic scenario, the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) announced the establishment under its wing of the New, Emerging and Strategic Technologies (NEST) division that will engage in ‘tech diplomacy’. The NEST division is tasked to provide policy guidance on how India can shape international rules related to emerging technologies, navigate competition over strategic supply chains to capture a larger share of global technology flows, and align India’s as yet discordant domestic technology policies with international regimes that are straining under complex geopolitical and institutional pressures. This brief identifies five thematic domains and five organisational processes that demand attention.


Trisha Ray is a Junior Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation Cyber Initiative.

Akhil Deo is aJunior Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation Technology and Media Initiative.

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