ICET: The next big thing in the India-US strategic relationship is here
ICET is, arguably, that next big thing, for the political, strategic, commercial and scientific alignment it represents between the two countries
When India’s national security adviser (NSA) Ajit Doval meets the United States (US) NSA Jake Sullivan for the first high-level dialogue of the Initiative on Critical and Emerging Technologies (ICET) on Tuesday, they may finally have found an answer to the question that has kept observers of the relationship puzzled ever since the 2008 nuclear deal — what’s the “next big thing” in the India-US relationship?
ICET is, arguably, that next big thing, for the political, strategic, commercial and scientific alignment it represents between the two countries.
It is a product of a top-level political understanding. It is shepherded by the national security councils of both countries. It deals directly with the disruptive domains which are central to both the next Industrial Revolution and future warfare. It potentially opens the door for the US to lift existing export control restrictions. And it sends a signal to the private sector in both countries to tap into each other’s complementarities and cooperate in sensitive sectors.
But most importantly, it shows a commitment from both governments, particularly the White House, that the US and India are “trusted partners”, willing to invest in creating a trusted ecosystem on technologies that will govern the future. Both national security establishments are essentially saying that the relationship is bulletproof, despite irritants and differences; that this is a long game and obstacles will be overcome; and that it is indeed, to use Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s evocative phrase to the US Congress, time to overcome the “hesitations of history”.
And in that sense, ICET resembles the next steps in strategic partnership (NSSP) — a key agreement between the two countries in 2004. If that pact marked the initial stages of the political and strategic convergence, ICET represents the great leap forward. If that had opened up new areas of cooperation in contentious domains such as nuclear that were unthinkable in the relationship till that point, ICET can open doors for cooperation in advanced telecom, artificial intelligence, quantum, space, defence innovation, and semiconductors. And if NSSP eventually paved the way for the nuclear deal, ICET can lock India and the US into an industrial and military bond driven by high technology.
While both sides have remained largely tight-lipped about the mechanism, HT, on background, spoke to a range of both Indian and American officials and others involved in backchannel discussions on ICET to understand its symbolism and substance.
Political trust and institutional architecture
ICET is a product of a political understanding reached between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Joe Biden in Tokyo in May 2022.
In a statement, the government of India said then, “Co-led by the National Security Council Secretariat in India and the U.S. National Security Council, ICET would forge closer linkages between government, academia and industry of the two countries in areas such as AI, quantum computing, 5G/6G, biotech, space and semiconductors.”
The White House said, “The leaders welcomed the launch of a United States–India Initiative on Critical and Emerging Technologies (ICET), spearheaded by the National Security Councils of the two countries to expand partnership in critical and emerging technologies.”
Three features are noteworthy.
One, this is a process driven by the highest political leadership of both countries. Biden and Modi are telling the world, but more importantly, their own systems that India and US have to work together in these domains and the details must be worked out.
Two, the mechanism is run directly from White House and the Prime Minister’s Office, with Biden’s closest aide, Sullivan, and Modi’s most trusted adviser, Doval, at the apex of the mechanism. Both command huge respect within their systems, both have the authority to stamp down bureaucratic turf issues, both can coordinate between diverse agencies and departments while keeping the bigger political picture in mind, and both speak for their leaders when they speak to each other.
And three, this convergence is happening between national security establishments when high technology is the big frontier of competition with China. Semiconductors is an obvious example, where the US ( and after high level visits to Washington in the past two weeks, Japan and Netherlands ) has imposed strict export controls on chip related equipment and materials to stall production of the most advanced chips in China. At a time when there is a clear signal on who the world should not do business with in this domain, there is a signal about who the White House would like the world to do business with.
Strategic signal and the visit
And this is why the composition of the NSA’s delegation and the key protagonists on the US side — as well as the substantive issues under discussion — is significant.
Doval is coming to DC with a group of key players, including many secretary level officers, from within Government of India. The principal scientific adviser, the department of telecom secretary, the advisor to the Raksha Mantri, the secretary of the department of space who serves as the head of the Indian Space Research Organisation, the head of the Indian Semiconductor Mission (from the ministry of electronics and information technology), and representatives from Defence Research and Development Organisation are expected to accompany the NSA — besides officials from the NSC who have done well in laying down the groundwork for the negotiations over the past year.
From the US side, besides Sullivan and representatives from counterpart agencies, commerce secretary Gina Raimondo (whose department controls export restrictions), the NSC Indo-Pacific czar Kurt Campbell, the senior director for national security and technology Tarun Chhabra and State Department’s deputy envoy for the office of critical and emerging technologies Seth Center will be a part of the dialogue. So will undersecretary for policy in the department of defense Colin Kahl, deputy NSA in charge of cyber and emerging technology Anne Neuberger, NASA administrator Bill Nelson and National Science Foundation director S Panchanthan.
Besides the official dialogue, there will be a Track 1.5 event hosted by the the US-India Business Council at the US Chamber of Commerce which will be attended by Doval, Sullivan and Raimondo with top industry representatives from both India and the US. Sullivan is also likely to attend a reception for Doval at India House hosted by ambassador Taranjit Singh Sandhu — a rare moment where the US NSA visits the Indian ambassador’s home in honour of his counterpart.
But all of this is because there is substance involved.
Consider telecom. Even as India is rolling out 5G, after having restricted Huawei from participating, the discourse has moved to 6G — in both cases, there have already been discussions on an open radio access network to deal with agreement on standards and disaggregated components coming from trusted partners.
Or consider semiconductors. Even as the pandemic made the world realised how the world is run on chips, and an awareness that there must be a degree of self reliance, both the US and India have launched their own measures to boost self-reliance — and there are possible ways to find complementaries if India focuses on the wider ecosystem beyond fabs and the US signals to investors that India is a trusted partner in the supply chain. As Chip Miller’s excellent book The Chip Wars shows, the interdependence on semiconductor production is hard to break and it will take will and energy to do it.
And there is a strong case for convergence in other tech domains. AI has already disrupted the ways people live, work, travel, holiday, conduct business, write, even love. Quantum research can change the scale of computing in a way that will make today’s machines seem ancient. Space is where all commercial and military activity of the future will be conducted. Defence innovation is where the future of warfare lies, and US concerns about Indian interoperability and Indian concerns about American reluctance to shed the vestiges of the past and insistence of co-production and co-development is an issue of dialogue. Ukraine has shown, land, water, air and cyber will continue be the theatres of war. Add to it the supply chain for clean energy components , which isn’t a subject of conversation yet, but will determine who has the edge in dealing with the existential battle of the future.
How the future will be shaped and conflicts will be fought will be determined by who possesses tech in all these domains and the tech standards they determine.
The US has capital. It is the hub of innovation. It also has the most advanced technologies. And it knows how to fuse military, civilian and commercial technologies together and, rightly or wrongly, determines the rules for the world on what’s allowed and what’s not. India has talent — both among its own citizens in India and among the Indians and Indian-Americans in the US who are already supplying the know-how for most of these technologies. India has an innovative start-up ecosystem. India has the market. And both countries know that if there is one country which can outcompete them, it is China. And if it does so, as one person said, “our grandchildren and your grandchildren will be ruled by them”. That is the logic of the conversation and the convergence.
The steps ahead
The dialogue, and the optics, are a clear signal from both governments, particularly the national security establishment of the US , that tech cooperation is kosher. This is striking because for most of its history, the American security state’s attitude to India has been marked by suspicion. Even after the nuclear deal, the new mechanisms that have been created, including the defence technology and trade initiative, have been marked more by an emphasis on trade and less on technology.
But while the signal to the private sector is important, it will work if America takes substantive steps on India’s desire for greater tech sharing and cooperation. So besides the substantive outcomes expected — particularly in the realm of academic and industrial collaboration - if ICET can begin a conversation on lifting the remaining restrictions that still apply to India and begin its treatment as an ally, even if it is not an ally, it will be significant. This is particularly true for the US Munitions List, which deals with articles, services and tech related to defence and space, and the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR), which restricts control of export of defence and military related technology.
ICET is the real deal because India and the US are talking about a substantive scientific, commercial, defence relationship. It widens the ownership of the relationship in the systems in both countries. It recognises where the strategic challenge comes from. And it send a signal to the adversary, to the internal system, to the private sector and to citizens. What is decided and how it is implemented is key now. But the big story is how Washington and Delhi are taking the next leap. It will change the collective future.