Expert Speak Digital Frontiers
Published on Jan 26, 2022
India is seen as a bridging power that can narrow the divide between the developed and developing countries through the use and regulation of new and emerging technologies
Emerging and Critical Technologies: New Frontiers for an Aspirational India

This piece is part of the series, India@75: Aspirations, Ambitions, and Approaches


The future of geopolitics, economies, livelihoods and governance will be written in chrome. It will be undergirded by emerging technologies like Artificial Intelligence (AI), robotics, and quantum computing, and will play out across several domains, ranging from cyberspace to outer space. As India enters its 76th year, it is an increasingly consequential power in a range of multilateral technology coalitions and multistakeholder forums. All eyes are, therefore, on the world’s largest democracy and how it engages with emerging and critical technologies, not just at international fora framing the rules of the road but through its own domestic policies as well. This piece identifies two keystone technology arenas for India’s engagement in the coming decade: Space and quantum technologies.
As India enters its 76th year, it is an increasingly consequential power in a range of multilateral technology coalitions and multistakeholder forums.

Crowded Outer Space 

It is a widely accepted truism in the space policy community that outer space is becoming increasingly crowded, congested and contested. The emerging space security scenario points to serious consequences. A deliberate act or accident in space is consequential. The current situation calls for laying out some rules of the road for outer-space activities, to ensure that space remains safe, secure and sustainable. Given the number of new and emerging security challenges in outer space, India can—and should—play a substantial role in shaping an international outer-space regime. India is an established space power and has important stakes in maintaining an open and secure outer-space regime. Its interests in drafting the rules are driven by the fact that it is one of the earliest spacefaring powers and would like to play an active role in shaping the rules for outer space activities. India is one of the three biggest space players in Asia, along with China and Japan, and any future regime will be ineffective without the participation of the key players. Also, rules and regulations can bring about a restraining effect on certain space activities that are inherently destabilising.
India is one of the three biggest space players in Asia, along with China and Japan, and any future regime will be ineffective without the participation of the key players.
The development of sophisticated military space programmes and counter-space capabilities in its neighbourhood is of enormous concern to India, and having legally binding mechanisms can be a way of curtailing certain destabilising capabilities. Anti-satellite weapons (ASAT) are a prominent example. China’s demonstration of ASAT in January 2007 was a stark reminder of the kind of challenges that India should be prepared for. Also, India’s interests in formulating rules for space is linked to its economic growth story, which is closely associated with its space programme. India has assets worth around US$37 billion, if one were to calculate the ground infrastructure and the value-added services associated with its outer space programme. Thus, the economic stakes of India’s space programme are rather high, making it crucial for the country to protect its space assets. Moreover, space assets have significant utility in the daily lives of Indian citizens, which is likely to grow manifold in the coming years. Finally, the Indian interest in writing an outer-space regime is linked to the increasingly contested geopolitics in the Indo-Pacific region, since New Delhi does not want outer space to become another realm of cut-throat competition. The influence of geopolitics in today’s space governance is evident, but India does not want such security politics to go too far, with states adopting deterrence policies, which would end badly for everyone. While this may sound hollow against the backdrop of India conducting an ASAT test of its own in March 2019, India was only responding to a capacity that already existed in its neighbourhood. It was a strategically considered decision, not a knee-jerk reaction to China’s ASAT tests. However, the hope remains that going forward, all countries can avoid going down the path of threatening each other’s satellites. Indeed, ignoring the security implications of military-space programmes would be perilous.
India has assets worth around US$37 billion, if one were to calculate the ground infrastructure and the value-added services associated with its outer space programme.
India can contribute to the global writing of the rules in various ways. It has remained an active partner in all the recent initiatives, including the European Union-initiated Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities as well as the 2018–19 UN Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) on PAROS (Prevention of Arms Race in Outer Space). The EU Code of Conduct ran into problems, mostly due to process issues. For example, many within the Indian civil and military bureaucracies opposed the way the Code was written, saying that the EU cannot determine what is good for the rest of the world. But many Asian space players, including India, had reservations on the content of the Code as well. While many non-Asian nations perceive these objections frivolous, there is significant political and geopolitical value to engaging with these issues instead of dismissing them. Being part of such an exercise will provide these countries with a sense of ownership over the Code or any final outcome, which can, in turn, ensure better longevity and compliance. That the EU Code did not provide for any legal framework or verification mechanism only exacerbated the concerns of the Asian space powers. The GGE specifically sought “to consider and make recommendations on substantial elements of an international legally binding instrument on the prevention of an arms race in outer space, including, inter alia, on the prevention of the placement of weapons in outer space.” But the GGE on PAROS that followed in 2018–19 had met with a similar inconclusive fate. Due to the divisive and contested nature of global politics, there was no consensus amongst the 25 member states. Consequently, there was no formal report from the GGE. The UK’s recent space security proposal, “Reducing Space Threats through Norms, Rules and Principles of Responsible Behaviours,” offers India an opportunity to shape the space security governance debates. Given the bottom-up and behaviour-based approach of the proposal, it is important for India and like-minded partners to engage with it and identify existing and potential threats and risks to space, as well as ideate possible pathways laying stress on trust-building as a key driver.
Many within the Indian civil and military bureaucracies opposed the way the Code was written, saying that the EU cannot determine what is good for the rest of the world.
Given the contentious nature of great power relations, and the resultant standstill in multilateral negotiations, India understands that one may need to start with a normative process and gradually develop legally binding measures. It is unlikely that the global governance debates will see much progress in the near future.

Quantum Technologies 

Just a couple of years ago, a viable commercial quantum computer was, by most estimates, between 10 and 30 years away. Launched by IBM and the University of Tokyo, the world’s first commercial quantum computer began operating in Japan in 2021. Quantum technologies come with a plethora of applications that could accelerate our progress in solving some of the most challenging problems of our time: Quantum encryption can secure communications; quantum simulation can help us discover new materials, including for green technologies; and quantum sensing could help us map the impact of climate change. To capitalise on the quantum revolution, India’s 2020-21 Union Budget proposed to spend INR 8,000 crore (USD 1.2 billion) on the newly launched National Mission on Quantum Technologies and Applications (NMQTA). India joins a growing group of countries that have announced dedicated strategies and budgets for quantum, which includes Canada’s National Quantum Strategy, with a budget commitment of CAD 360 million (US$287 million); France’s National Strategy for Quantum Technologies, which commits 1.8 billion euro (US$1.8 billion) over five years; and South Korea’s announcement of an investment of KRW 44.5 billion (US$38 million) over five years. At the same time, quantum applications can undermine the stability of nascent digital infrastructure, including key public infrastructure upon which India’s financial infrastructure is built. In the absence of clear rules of the road, and of bright red lines on unethical uses of quantum technologies, the quantum revolution could become a double-edged sword.
India joins a growing group of countries that have announced dedicated strategies and budgets for quantum, which includes Canada’s National Quantum Strategy, with a budget commitment of CAD 360 million (US$287 million).
The broader structural implications of quantum technologies also remain underexplored. Will the shift from linear to quantum causality require a fundamental rejig in how we think about power, ethics and decision-making? How would we code accountability into a technology where cause and effect may be indeterminate, where the act of observation may change the outcome, and where explainability and reconstruction of how a decision was made may be impossible? Finally, emerging technologies in all spheres are increasingly embroiled in geopolitics, particularly the strategic competition between the United States and China. Consequently, international norms around quantum could follow a trajectory similar to that of AI or space, remaining in limbo or scattered across disparate sets of principles. New Delhi must prepare to shape, rather than be shaped, by these shifting geopolitical winds.

Conclusion: India’s Place in the World 

India must use this as an opportunity to take the lead in developing a coalition of like-minded countries that can fund technology-aided solutions, which might gradually find favour among the Great Powers as well. There is a particular advantage to India leading such an exercise. For instance, many developing countries in Asia, Africa and other parts of the world consider New Delhi’s technological advancements as impressive achievements for a fellow developing nation. Indeed, India is also seen as a bridging power that can narrow the divide between the developed and developing countries. It will serve India well if it manages to take the opportune moment to make important gains in the governance of these technologies.
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Author

Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan

Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan

Dr Rajeswari (Raji) Pillai Rajagopalan is the Director of the Centre for Security, Strategy and Technology (CSST) at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.  Dr ...

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