September 28, 2010

Role of Technology in India's Foreign Relations by Amb. B. Balakrishnan


Role of Technology in India’s foreign relations

Starting with the basic concepts of Technology and International Relations, we outline a conceptual framework showing the impact of technology on international relations, including the contest for power, dominance and control. The increasing importance of technology related issues in foreign relations of countries and on global issues such as climate change, energy and environment is outlined.

We review India’s technological development since independence, especially in strategically important areas. In particular some key recent technology issues that have become important in India’s foreign relations are analyzed. Some of the most recent challenges that have arisen in regulating technology, such as preventing access by terrorists, spread of mass destruction weapons, protecting intellectual property rights, are outlined. The importance of technology in international relations is likely to grow in future, posing challenges for India’s foreign relations.

MEA Distinguished Lecture Series on India's Foreign Policy
“Role of Technology in India’s foreign relations”
IIT Roorkee, 28 Sept 2010


Technology is as old as human civilization. Man has constantly tried to enlarge knowledge, and apply it in diverse ways to meet his needs. This practical application of basic knowledge is what we call technology. Throughout history, the search for knowledge and its application through technology have been important determining factors in the progress of human society. In the competition for dominance and control, societies which forged ahead in mastery of basic knowledge and technology were able to succeed, sometimes far beyond expectations.

This paradigm changing, force multiplying effect of technology has been responsible for major historical changes and relations among societies in the past. Examples are numerous. The discovery of agriculture allowed for the feeding of larger populations, and development of complex societies. The Mongols used a composite bow which was compact and more powerful, and could be used on horseback. Babur used cannons from Turkey to win the battle of Panipat in 1526. The impact of technology on warfare and military balance was particularly striking, allowing relatively smaller forces to prevail because of superior technology. This phenomenon continues even in modern times, when the first atomic bombs caused the immediate surrender of Japan.

Competition among European nations encouraged them to innovate and avoid technological stagnation, which led to the dominance of European powers over the last 500 years. However, dogmatic ideologies which severely limited questioning and enquiry retarded technological progress. This was the case with the inquisition of the Catholic Church in Europe, during the 12 th - 16 th centuries. For example, Giordano Bruno, a leading astronomer, was burned at the stake in 1600 after the Roman Inquisition found him guilty of heresy.

International relations comprise the variety of relationships among states within the international system and complex of global issues, including the interactions between entities governmental and nongovernmental, national or multinational. Power is a key factor in the calculus of international relations. It can be described in terms of control over key resources, capabilities, and influence in international affairs. It is often divided up into the concepts of hard power and soft power, hard power relating primarily to coercive power, such as the use of force, and soft power commonly covering the persuasive domain, such as economics, diplomacy and influencing people. Technology plays a critical role in determining power, both hard and soft.

It is therefore clear that the extent of mastery over basic knowledge and technology are key determinants of a society’s military and economic strength, and therefore its ability to participate effectively in the international system. However, such leadership cannot remain indefinitely, since knowledge and technology can be acquired by other competitors, albeit with some time delays. Efforts to control or limit the spread of technology are bound to be temporary at best. Similarly, merely acquiring of technology without the capability to derive it from basic knowledge offers only limited advantages, and may negatively impact genuine indigenous capability. Therefore remaining ahead in knowledge and technology requires a continuous and sustained effort.

The quest for knowledge and technology requires not merely material resources. Numerous examples highlight the key role played by human resources, especially of innovative thinkers and researchers. There is a distinction between mastering the “content” or “hardware” of knowledge, and being able to “innovate and apply” or the “software” of knowledge. This phenomenon is found in all disciplines. One can distinguish between a technically perfect musician and a musical genius, a technically well trained athlete and a star performer; and a scientist or engineer who knows the content and one who can also innovate and move beyond limits. Both are important – mastery over content as well as ability to innovate.

The pursuit of technology requires innovation and improvisation, the ability to question conventional assumptions and beliefs, and move ahead into uncharted areas. For example in the early 20 th century, the fundamental conventional assumptions of classical physics were challenged and overthrown, and a whole generation of physicists developed quantum mechanics and relativity. This spirit of challenge and enquiry continued in physics, leading to many major advances. A.P.J.Abdul Kalam has called this process the “igniting of minds”, by which one can soar beyond the framework of conventional knowledge and explore new horizons.

India in the early years - Nehru’s contribution

Even before independence, India had several internationally renowned scientists. These included the mathematical genius Srinivas Ramanajuam, Satyen Bose associated with Bose-Einstein statistics, C.V.Raman for inelastic scattering of light from molecules, and others. In addition, there were outstanding scientists in the Indian diaspora in the US such as S. Chandrasekhar, the astrophysicist.

After independence, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru gave high priority to India achieving excellence in science and technology. He drafted an eminent scientist Dr. Homi J Bhabha to put in place a long term strategic plan for nuclear science and technology. With remarkable foresight, he also promoted major reforms in higher education, science and technology. His tenure witnessed the setting up of the first IIT in Kharagpur in 1951, the Indian Space Research programme in the 1960s, and the strengthening of national research and development capability under the CSIR and various Technical Institutions.

This thrust in science and technology continued during Indira Gandhi’s premiership, including the Pokhran I series of nuclear explosions in 1974. India became host to one of the two centres of the International Centres for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (ICGEB). Prime Minster Rajiv Gandhi also gave strong political support to science and technology, including information technology and telecommunications.

The driving force behind India’s science and technology came from government initiatives such as those in atomic energy, space, and biotechnology. However, in later years, the private sector was the driver in areas such as information technology. In the area of scientific and technical manpower, the IITs proved to be a successful model, recognized in the west. However, there is room for further improvement of overall quality of India’s scientific institutions including those engaged in scientific and technical education. The recent higher education reform proposals may help in this direction.

India’s foreign relations

The principles of India’s foreign relations were to a large extent formulated by Nehru. These included non-alignment with either of the two blocs in the Cold War, peaceful coexistence and constructive collaboration with all countries irrespective of their internal governance systems, and securing largest possible space for India’s indigenous economic, scientific and technological development considered vital for removal of poverty. The Cold War has faded away, and in its wake there are multiple poles of power – the US, China, EU and Russia. But the global situation is marked by instability, growing competition and lack of collaboration, requiring continuous and sophisticated adaptation of our foreign policy.

Technology and international relations

In the post World war II era, the advent of nuclear weapons, together with the rivalry between two power blocs posed a challenge to the international system. While the basic science behind nuclear weapons was fairly simple, in practice the construction of nuclear weapons required formidable technical efforts in enrichment of Uranium, and weapons design expertise. The nuclear weapons arms race resulted in numerous tests, and the rise of USSR, UK, France, and China as nuclear weapons states.

For these reasons, the area of arms control was the first where technology impacted international relations in a big way. The various arms control negotiations such as the NPT, the Nuclear Test Ban treaties, Chemical and Biological weapons, etc, involved technology related issues, especially in the verification and compliance aspects. Negotiators had to have a good grasp of technology to be effective, and close cooperation between the diplomats and the technologists became necessary.

In the 1970s international debate focused on the North-South divide, with the developing countries under the umbrella of the G-77 demanding fundamental changes in the international order. The status quo was represented by the Group B or industrialized market economy countries, while the socialist bloc supported the G-77 on most issues more with a political motive than with conviction. One key area of discussion was the question of access to technology on fair and equitable terms. Efforts were made under UNCTAD to draft a legally binding code on transfer of technology but these were blocked by the group B countries. Even a non binding code of conduct could not be agreed upon. Multinational corporations which had the technology would only grant access to it on their terms, which often included restrictive business practices that went against the competition laws of their own countries.

In this context, India’s diplomatic efforts had to take into account the growing role of technology related issues in international relations. Some of the important areas where technology has impacted India’s external relations are discussed below.

Nuclear technology and India’s foreign relations

The area of nuclear technology is probably the most significant challenge in India’s foreign relations. After the end of World War II, shocked by the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, there was a strong demand for the complete abolition of nuclear weapons, articulated forcefully but pragmatically by Nehru. However, the nuclear weapons states US, USSR, Britain and France obviously preferred a regime in which such weapons could remain in their hands. While Britain benefited from the US in terms of access to nuclear weapons technology, China derived similar support from the USSR. The Cold War rivalry which reached its most dangerous manifestation in the Cuban Missile crisis of October 1962, and China’s nuclear tests in 1964 set the stage for moving ahead with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). This unequal and unbalanced treaty legitimized the possession of nuclear weapons in the hands of five states, while placing numerous restrictions and controls on access to and application of nuclear technology by other states, coupled with only lip service to reduction in nuclear arsenals. India rightly rejected this unequal treaty, along with several other countries. This implied that India would face difficulties and restrictions in the area of nuclear technology.

India’s nuclear explosion in 1974, declared as being for peaceful purposes, led to severe restrictions on India’s access to nuclear technology, materials and equipment. The Nuclear Suppliers Group was set up to enforce a technology denial regime. This led to a massive indigenous effort under BARC and DAE to develop India’s strategic and civil nuclear programmes. India’s foreign policy in this sphere had to counter the efforts in the international community to isolate and strangle India’s nuclear programme. The main thrust of our policy was – to continue to develop our nuclear programme, reject the NPT as an unequal and unbalanced treaty, to call for the total abolition of nuclear weapons, and support confidence building measures such as ban on first use of nuclear weapons, measures to reduce false alerts and alarms, etc.

In May 1998, India conducted a series of five nuclear weapons tests, including one thermonuclear device. Earlier moves to conduct tests had been thwarted by the US administration. This time the tests came as a surprise even to the US. These tests were followed by a series of tests conducted by Pakistan in the Chagai Hills. International reaction was severe, and prospects of a nuclear war between India and Pakistan were widely discussed. The nuclear embargo on India was tightened, including economic pressures aimed at curbing India’s purely indigenous nuclear programme. In contrast Pakistan which had developed its nuclear weapons through the clandestine A.Q.Khan’s nuclear smuggling enterprise, plus weapon designs and political support from China, was relatively unfettered.

India’s response to international pressure has been carefully calibrated. We continue to support the total abolition of nuclear weapons, a goal which the US had initially described as “unrealistic”, but which now finds some support under President Obama. India has declared a unilateral moratorium on nuclear testing but continues to stay out of the CTBT which it regards as a part of the unequal NPT regime. India supports a no first use policy on nuclear weapons, despite the existence of troubled relations with two of its neaighbours -China and Pakistan. If it were possible, India would be ready to sign the NPT but as a nuclear weapons state. Nevertheless, India has declared it will respect the “principles” contained in the NPT, while not signing it.

Persistent efforts by India yielded positive results with the July 2005 Manmohan Singh-Bush joint statement on separation of India’s civil and strategic nuclear programmes, the former to be placed under international safeguards, and in exchange benefit from full civil nuclear cooperation,. Over the next three years intensive negotiations and discussions with internal constituents in both countries led to amendment of U.S. domestic law, a civil-military nuclear Separation Plan in India, an India-IAEA safeguards (inspections) agreement and the grant of an exemption for India by the Nuclear Suppliers Group. Once the IAEA India specific safeguards agreement enters into force, some 35 Indian nuclear installations will come under safeguards, in a phased manner.

The joint effort by India and the US to get a waiver from the nuclear Suppliers group, in the face of opposition from several countries, must be seen as a landmark in Indo-US diplomatic cooperation. The 45-nation NSG granted the waiver to India on September 6, 2008 allowing it to access civilian nuclear technology and fuel from other countries. The implementation of this waiver makes India the only known country with nuclear weapons which is not a party to the Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT) but is still allowed to carry out nuclear commerce with the rest of the world. India’s responsible stewardship of nuclear technology and its declaration on nuclear testing helped this process.

Pakistan, with Chinese support, has lobbied strenuously for the same status from the NSG, but with little success, perhaps due to its involvement in nuclear smuggling. A China-Pakistan nuclear deal, on the lines of the Indo-US is unlikely to gain acceptance from the NSG. The recent notice to the IAEA by China of supply of two new civilian nuclear reactors to Pakistan on the basis that this deal is part of an earlier agreement that antedates China’s entry into the NSG is certain to cause disputes and weaken the NSG.

Israel, the other undeclared nuclear weapons state with a formidable arsenal, has its own strategic imperatives. The case of North Korea and Iran is quite different, as both these have signed the NPT. North Korea has withdrawn from the NPT and tested a nuclear device. Iran continues to pursue Uranium enrichment and a heavy water reactor, ostensibly for peaceful purposes, but these also give it a nuclear weapons option. Meanwhile the NPT review conference of 2010 did not break any new ground and failed to meet Arab concerns over the problem of Israeli nuclear weapons.

India will continue to face challenges in the field of nuclear policy. It is under pressure to sign and ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). Moves to negotiate a Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty (FMCT) gained momentum after the Obama administration recently changed the US stance on verification, but Pakistan has blocked progress. The FMCT would seek to prohibit the further production of fissile material for nuclear weapons or other explosive devices. This treaty would be difficult to accept unless the goal of a credible nuclear deterrent is achieved. In the future the FMCT negotiations could pose a challenge for India.

In the area of civil nuclear cooperation, India is now able to import Uranium fuel for its civilian reactors, which have been run at low output due to fuel shortages. Some countries such as Australia, still insist that India should join the NPT before they can do business with India in this sector. The Nuclear Liability Bill recently approved by Parliament is a step forwarding facilitating civil nuclear commerce, especially with the USA, although some changes are being called for in the legislation. But nuclear power sector in India remains restricted to the government sector, and the question is whether this model will be able to manage the financial and technical resources for implementing India’s ambitious nuclear power programme.

Space and Missile programme

India’s space programme started under the Department of Atomic Energy in 1950, with strong support from Nehru. It gained momentum under the Indian National Committee for Space Research (INCOSPAR) founded in 1962 with Vikram Sarabhai as its chairman. The Indian Space Research Organization in its modern form was created by Vikram Sarabhai in 1969. The development of launch vehicles which has both civil and military applications involved critical and closely guarded technology subject to restrictions. The USSR was a strong partner in India’s programme. ISRO went in for a long-term strategic plan of indigenous launch vehicle capability. Over the years, this approach resulted in successful development of increasingly powerful launch vehicles, such as SLV, ASLV, PSLV and finally the GSLV.

The GSLV-I has a Russian-made cryogenic third stage, which is to be replaced with an identical Indian-built one for the GSLV-II. The solid first and liquid second stages are carried over from the PSLV. In July 1993, under US pressure, Russia went back on its agreement to transfer cryogenic technology to India on the grounds that it would violate Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR). In lieu of cryogenic technology, Russia agreed to sell two additional cryogenic stages to India. Following Russia's refusal, India had to develop cryogenic technology it on its own, which is a formidable feat. The first launch of the rocket with the Indian made cryogenic engine in April 2010was a failure. The next launch is likely to take place within a year.

To restrict the spread of missile technology, the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) was established in April 1987 by Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Great Britain, and the United States and now includes 34 countries The MTCR was created in order to curb the spread of unmanned delivery systems for nuclear weapons, specifically delivery systems that could carry a minimum payload of 500 kg a minimum of 300 km. In October 1994, in order to make the enforcement of MTCR Guidelines more uniform, the member states established a “no undercut” policy, meaning if one member denies the sale of some technology to another country, then all members must adhere.

Faced with a technology denial regime, India had to develop its indigenous missile capability. This programme over 1980-2007 has successfully developed short and intermediate range missiles for various defence applications. Notable is the intermediate range ballistic missile Agni III (range 3500 km) to be followed by Agni V with a longer range. India and Russia have collaborated in developing the world’s only supersonic cruise missile the Brahmos, with a range of 290 km (below the MTCR threshold) and speed of Mach 2.8. A hypersonic Mach 8 version Brahmos II is under development.

Thus in the defence field, India has to contend with a number of technology denial and restrictive regimes, while meeting its requirements of defence equipment.

The Wassenaar Arrangement

The Wassenaar Arrangement is a multilateral technology export control regime (MECR) with 40 participating states. The list of restricted technologies includes a "Munitions List", a Sensitive List and a Very Sensitive List. The Very Sensitive List includes materials for stealth technology, equipment that can be used for submarine detection, advanced radar, and jet engine technologies. India is not a party to this arrangement, which is a successor to the COCOM, as group set up during the Cold War to prevent leakage of technology from the West to the East bloc.

US technology control regime

The US, a leading country in terms of technology development, has put in place a system of controls to prevent sensitive technology from leaking into the hands of hostile entities. The Bureau of Industry and Security (BIS) of the Department of Commerce deals with issues involving national security and high technology. It regulates the export of sensitive goods and dual-use technologies; enforces export control, anti-boycott, and public safety laws; cooperates with and assists other countries on export control and strategic trade issues; assists U.S. industry to comply with international arms control agreements. Many sensitive goods and technologies (for example, encryption software) require a permit from the Department of Commerce before they can be exported. Recently, India and the US signed an end user verification agreement enabling the US to monitor high end defence and sensitive technology supplied to India.

International Scientific Collaboration

Research in frontier basic sciences is becoming increasingly costly and beyond the reach of individual nations, even the US. One such example is the Large Hadron Collider Project (LHC) under CERN, Geneva. India has participated in this $ 9 billion project both in supplying components for the LHC as well as software services and is also a partner in some of the scientific experiments. The value of Indian supplied components and services to the LHC is calculated at European rates, and the amount this represents is available for funding Indian scientific workers. This is a particularly effective way for countries such as India to participate in frontier research in basic sciences. Another such project is the International Thermonuclear Reactor (ITER) at a cost of some $6-18 billion, scheduled for completion in 2018. Other examples can be cited – the Human Genome Project; the International Space Station, etc. Such international scientific collaboration opportunities are likely to increase in the future, and need to be exploited effectively.

Intellectual Property Rights

India faced a difficult challenge during the TRIPS negotiations in the WTO (then GATT) during the Uruguay round (1986-1994). Intense lobbying by the US, EU , Japan and other developed countries including the threat of Section 301 of the US Trade Act forced India to yield ground especially on the issue of product patents , which India had not recognized. This had enabled Indian pharma companies to reverse engineer drugs and discover alternative production processes and produce drugs at lower costs. Indian patent law had provided for process patents and not product patents, and had also several provisions regarding working of patents and compulsory licensing in the public interest. The US pharma lobby was opposed to these provisions in Indian legislation. They mounted a campaign against India, Brazil and other major developing countries. Indian industry also softened its position, perhaps due to the emergence of R & D capability. Public and consumer awareness of these issues was not deep.

The situation involved a compromise on India’s interests in the fields of trade, copyrights, and patents, with the country being a creator as well as a consumer of intellectual property. India joined the TRIPS agreement and amended its laws by the deadline of 2005. Many critics contended that this would lead to higher prices for drugs in India. The 1994 TRIPS agreement has been widely criticized as being unbalanced in favour of patent protection as against the public interest.


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