Event ReportsPublished on Jul 27, 2021
Contentious issues in a disruptive world

An interaction with students on geopolitics, geoeconomics, and tech

On 7 July 2021, ORF and the US Consulate General, Mumbai, co-organised an interactive session with students titled ‘Contentious Issues in a Disruptive World’. Symbiosis School of International Studies (SSIS), Pune; Department of Civics and Politics, University of Mumbai (MU); Meghnad Desai Academy of Economics (MDAE), and Jai Hind College (JHC), Mumbai, were the institutional partners. The interaction yielded thought-provoking conversations between 12 student discussants and senior ORF faculty on the topics of ‘Emerging Dynamics of the Indo-Pacific’, ‘Debt Diplomacy’ and ‘Regulations in the Digital Era’.

US Consul General David J Ranz, in his inaugural address, highlighted the importance of a rules-based order to maintain peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific. India, which has “emerged as a leading global power and a pillar of strength in the Indo-Pacific” is the US’ trusted partner in this endeavour. India’s strong democratic presence in the region also is good for the world at large, as it lends vigour and gravity to emerging multi-lateral structures such as the QUAD, which aim to ensure peace, security, and prosperity of the Indo-Pacific by coordinating on issues like COVID-19, climate change, and maritime security.

Dr Rajeshwari Pillai Rajagopalan, Director of ORF’s Centre for Security, Security, and Technology presented an overview of the ‘Emerging Dynamics of the Indo-Pacific’. MDAE’s Neelesha Dhawan, MU’s Gayatri Pore, JHC’s Krish Kothari, and SSIS’ Rithika Thammaiah were the student discussants. “There’s never a dull moment for Asia in the Indo-Pacific,” said Dr. Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan, while explaining the dynamics in the region. Housing three of the world’s rising powers—China, India, Japan—amidst the perceptive decline of the US and a resurgent Russia, the Indo-Pacific has accentuated the Asian divisiveness and given rise to suspicion, competition, and rivalry. China’s military build-up and wolf-warrior diplomacy in its Asian neighbourhood has transformed the security dynamics. As a result, the region is witnessing newer partnerships of likeminded allies, driven by common security and defence concerns. In such a scenario, India, despite lacking economic capacity to counter China, can lead in the propagation of shared approaches to ideas and principles for a free, open, and transparent Indo-Pacific.

MDAE’s Neelesha initiated the interaction by bringing in the question on the role of national interests in the Indo-Pacific framework. National Interests need to be merged in the context of broader regional security, stability and prosperity, as the power dynamics in the region have tended to accelerate competition, rivalry and trust deficits. In such a scenario, did India took long to adopt its Indo-Pacific vision? Dr Rajagopalan explained that with a powerful China being its immediate neighbour, India preferred to remain militarily distant from groupings with perceived anti-China arrangements, a notion often associated with the QUAD. However, Australia’s participation in the Malabar joint naval exercises following last year’s Sino-Indo border crisis marked a significant departure from India’s earlier stand on its Indo-Pacific policy and brought greater synergistic and strategic capability in the region. To Rithika’s question on the formalisation of the QUAD, Dr Rajagopalan said that QUAD is a strategic reality and India’s active participation in such formulations through military and diplomatic engagements can promote an inclusive Asia.

Kalpit Mankikar, Research Fellow, ORF, presented the second session on ‘Debt Diplomacy’. The student discussants were MU’s Mrigaank Shukla, MDAE’s Priyanshi Desai, JHC’s Forum Shah, and SSIS’ Samanya Sharma. He began by explaining the larger meaning of the term from the perspective of China’s actions in Asia. Countries use debt diplomacy to primarily serve its own geopolitical, geostrategic, and geoeconomics interests. China’s actions, particularly its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) contracts, have clear signs of debt diplomacy, where the conditions of its loans are never revealed. China’s actions in Sri Lanka, in the case of Hambantota Port, underscore its tactical use of debt diplomacy to make countries its ‘financial hostages’ and exploit their domestic vulnerabilities. Sri Lanka’s inability to repay China’s loan, resulted in a Chinese company taking over the asset on a 99-year lease. Sri Lanka also lost 20,000 acres of peripheral land for the development of the Colombo Port City. The largest Chinese private sector development, the Colombo Port City not only violates Sri Lanka’s sovereignty, but poses a security concern for India.

 After the Cold War ended, China’s fear of being the US’ next target was met with the use of soft power and projection of peaceful development, allowing it to hide in plain sight and covertly pursue debt diplomacy for strategic gains. In a response to a question from Forum Shah on increasing initiatives to counter China and how much the West perceived China as a security threat, Mr Mankikar pointed out that there was a growing concern amongst many recipient countries where leaders have come to power on anti-BRI campaigns. To a question from Priyanshi why countries dealing with China were not cognisant of the debt repercussions, Mr Mankikar pointed out that several smaller countries were lured by the development promise of their deals with China and realised the unviability of the projects much later. It is, therefore, important to understand the implications of China’s debt diplomacy, since it puts many smaller countries at risk.

Ms Trisha Ray, Associate Fellow, ORF, was accompanied by MU’s Prerak Majmundar, MDAE’s Arsh Mogre, JHC’s Harsh Unhavne, and SSIS’ Anirban Dutta as the student discussants in the final session on ‘Regulations in the Digital Era’. She began her presentation by highlighting how tech giants have ushered in a new era of connectedness, creativity, and consumption, but are now increasingly facing criticism for their growing societal influence and coercive business practices. Social media platforms are getting into legal crosshairs because of their data management practices, how personal information is sold without explicit consent of the users, and influencing large groups to act in a certain expected way. A case in point is how voters’ behaviour was influenced first during the 2016 US Presidential elections and then again at the time of Brexit in the UK. Granular insights and targeted outreach that social media enables makes such social engineering a potent tool that can be exploited by vested interests, she said.

Big Tech is often seen as not being accountable to the laws of countries outside the ones of their origin. The issue of data sovereignty is, therefore, also gaining traction suggesting that the practices of these platforms should be subject to the laws of the users’ home countries. This raises the question of whether private platforms should have the authority to decide what constitutes free speech and does not. To a question by SSIS’ Anirban on how governments acquiring data from these companies can affect the future of democracies, Ms Ray replied that even if non-interference was at the core of such access, it is important to look at the intentions of the regulations. To counter the authoritarian model of the internet, democracies need to and are increasingly grouping together to formulate norms and rules on democratic digital spaces. JHC’s Harsh was interested in knowing if blockchain technology could be used in sectors other than economics, to which Ms Ray said that more than adoption, accessibility of such technologies posed a bigger challenge.

This event report has been compiled by Riddhi Kothawale, Research Intern, ORF Mumbai.

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