The promise of techno-nationalism

There has been a fair amount of chatter of late about the sharp increase in techno-nationalism over the past few years. Economic analysts,policy-makers and think tanks around the world are debating what it means for the world in general and their countries in particular.

The definitions of techno-nationalism, and its opposite, techno-globalisation, can vary depending on who is using it. Broadly, techno-globalisation seeks the free flow of technologies and sharing of innovations in order to bring countries and individuals on a shared platform to solve social problems. Techno-nationalism, on the other hand, sees nation states using their superiority in specific technologies rise up the global hierarchy and dominate other nations.

However, neither of these two terms accurately describes the current state of global affairs. We are actually in the midst of a tech race for supremacy between the older developed nations, with the US at the helm on one side, and China on the other. The goal is dominance over new technologies — artificial intelligence, quantum computing, robotics, material sciences, biotech and Internet of Things among others — that will shape the future.

Till about a decade ago, the developed countries were considered to be ahead by a good margin and they largely followed the policy of cooperative competition. The US was the clear leader in many areas, though the European Union, Britain, Japan and South Korea had their own areas of strength. China, though it was progressing rapidly on the economic front, was still considered at least five years behind in cutting edge technologies.

That has changed. Most analysts today put China on a par, if not slightly ahead, in areas like artificial intelligence and big data analytics, genomic manipulation and even quantum computing. What worries the Western world is the naked display of Chinese ambition and its government’s use of private companies to gather data surreptitiously from friends and rivals alike.

These worries have led to tit-for-tat actions. The US and several European countries have banned Chinese firms such as telecom equipment giant Huawei, video camera maker Hikvision and social media player ByteDance from operating in key areas. Western tech companies have also been told not to share key technologies with the Chinese. In turn, China is speeding up development of technologies where it has lagged behind — such as chip making.

Most developing and under-developed countries fall in neither camp because they are users, not original innovators in most cutting edge technologies. Many of them are following an either/or/both approach. That is, while most countries in the past few decades depended on Western largesse when it came to adopting new technology, they have now got the option of turning towards China. And the latter has been aggressive in offering its help and supplying its products and service cheaply along with financial assistance, in a bid to become the preferred technology supplier.

Either way, at the cusp of the fourth industrial revolution, the world is getting divided into the techno colonialists, or the original innovators, and the techno colonies, or the users who depend on the breakthroughs of the innovators.

Where is India placed in this global play? Till recently, it was open to technology coming from both the old developed nations as well as China. Of late, after rising tensions with China, it has talked about self sufficiency and techno-nationalism. It has also banned many Chinese apps and talked about developing indigenous 5G telecom technology. At the same time, the government has outlined its vision for artificial intelligence and quantum computing. However, it is a halfway house because Huawei, Hikvision and other Chinese companies continue to have a significant presence in India.

The issue is that successive governments have failed to articulate a coherent long-term vision and a clearly-articulated action plan with timelines and targets. The Western model for technology development has been a collaborative one between government departments (especially defence), the private sector, and research institutes/universities. These collaborate while also working independently, using each other’s breakthroughs to develop the technology further.

China followed a very different model, with the state dictating and controlling to a large extent the direction of technology research in both institutes and private firms. At the time of Independence, India had followed the erstwhile USSR model of directing state arms to focus on research and technology development. While that helped the country develop a certain competence in some areas, it never really bothered to match step with the changing technological developments around the world. The excessively closed economy between 1970 and 1985 added to us falling behind in technology adoption.

After the reforms starting 1991, successive governments were focused more on economic problems than technological development. The private sector too was content to buy technology off the shelf instead of trying to develop it, though some companies did use frugal innovation to develop applications and products.

It is not that India cannot develop cutting edge technology when needed. After the country was denied access, India found the resources, expertise and will to develop cryogenic engines, nuclear technology and super computers. But where technology was freely accessible, it showed little ambition to compete with other countries.

That attitude needs to change if India wants to escape remaining a techno-colony. Just a high gross domestic product will not give it a seat at the high table of global technology.

Business Standard is now on Telegram.
For insightful reports and views on business, markets, politics and other issues, subscribe to our official Telegram channel