History and the 5G dilemma

As India looks to developing 5G technology, its quest in the 1980s for an American supercomputer offers lessons

Updated - July 29, 2019 04:14 am IST

Published - July 29, 2019 12:02 am IST

New technologies have a curious history of finding their way into the crosshairs of international politics. ‘5G’ is no different. In many respects, the dilemma facing Prime Minister Narendra Modi — to embrace Huawei and other Chinese purveyors of 5G-enabled telecommunications infrastructure, or to salvage the political relationship with the United States — is similar to the one faced by Rajiv Gandhi in the 1980s. Then, India had sought for itself a “supercomputer” from, among others, Japan. Instead, it was dealt a bad hand by the U.S., and made to settle eventually for an American machine that belonged to an older, slower generation of computers. The lessons from that moment in history are instructive, and Indian policymakers would do well to heed them.

The late 1980s saw the waning of Cold War tensions on account of the Soviet Union’s inability to stand toe-to-toe with the military might of the U.S. But U.S. President Ronald Reagan’s administration had already set its sights on a small nation making rapid advancements in computing: Japan. Their technological rivalry spawned a trade war between Washington DC and Tokyo, each trying to outpace the other in penetrating newer markets. It reached a crescendo in 1987 when Reagan himself blocked the acquisition of Fairchild Semiconductors by Fujitsu Corporation. Fairchild was responsible for giving “Silicon Valley” its name — the audacious Japanese attempt to buy off an American crown jewel was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

The supercomputer saga

But long before this rivalry reached a head, India had become its unfortunate casualty. Geopolitics induced by technology coincided with Rajiv Gandhi’s winning the 1984 general election by a landslide. His early initiatives included the New Computer Policy (NCP) of 1984 and the Software (Exports) Policy of 1986, which resulted in a steep drop in the price of computers, and heralded a remarkable shift in the government’s attitude towards them. However, to keep up with rapid, generational leaps in computing, India needed the assistance of nations that had made big strides in the sector. The U.S. made it known early that it called the shots.

Months after the NCP was passed, Reagan put India in a list of destinations that needed special “review” before exports of American technology could be cleared. Rajiv Gandhi made a much publicised visit to Washington DC in the summer of 1985 to break the impasse. It resulted in the Technology Cooperation Agreement (TCA), a genuine, diplomatic success forged by the personal chemistry the young Prime Minister shared with the septuagenarian Reagan. The TCA eased regulations on technology exports, and it was during this visit that Rajiv Gandhi broached the possible purchase of a supercomputer.

Publicly, India sought a supercomputer to forecast its monsoons better. Negotiations with the U.S. were however long and cumbersome, and an entire year passed by without any progress. Meanwhile, Rajiv Gandhi himself had staked political capital in promising to bring home a supercomputer, lending urgency to the matter. India eventually approached Japan, whose NEC Corporation was the only company outside the U.S. that could offer a supercomputer. The Wall Street Journal at the time made the stunning revelation that Japan had promised India it would “sign a supercomputer agreement within 30 days if the US deal fell through”.

Instrument of politics

The availability of advanced technology from a competitor undermined the U.S. objective of wielding it as a blunt instrument of politics. Reagan wanted to wean India away from its partnership with the Soviet Union on high technology, and rein in New Delhi’s progress on its nascent guided missile programme. Therefore, the U.S. attached riders to the sale, placing intrusive safeguards and certification requirements that the supercomputer would be used by India only for civilian purposes. Ironically, American technology companies such as Honeywell and Unisys were supplying advanced electronics to Saddam Hussein around the same time, augmenting Iraq’s missile system. When Japan stepped into the picture, the U.S. immediately began negotiations to reach a “common understanding” with Tokyo for the sale of supercomputers.

The Japanese too believed the safeguards were “ too broad and too stringent ” but simply did not have the diplomatic firepower to resist Reagan’s overtures. With Japan making its reluctance known, India was held captive at the negotiating table by the U.S. The agreement finally inked was for the sale of a Cray XMP supercomputer a generation older to its latest variant.

The deal did little for Rajiv Gandhi domestically. After all, the Indian disaffection with IBM had begun, leading to its eventual exit in 1978, on account of its selling of obsolete machines to customers. If India has made modest forays into supercomputing today, it is thanks to the Centre for Development of Advanced Computing (C-DAC), which stepped up its efforts to create an indigenous machine in the wake of this episode.

The Cray supercomputer sale is well-documented, but less storied is the American effort to dissuade Japan’s technology giants from the Indian market. By investing heavily in his political relationship with the U.S., Rajiv Gandhi unwittingly waded into Reagan’s technology trade war with Tokyo. It diminished his ability to negotiate autonomously with NEC.

Fast forward to the present

The 5G saga is no different. At the recently concluded G20 summit in Osaka, Mr. Modi suggested he was talking to his U.S. counterpart to “collaborate and develop 5G technology for mutual benefit”. Few American vendors have the ability today to compete with a Huawei, Nokia or Ericsson — the statement was a concession on Mr. Modi’s part, allowing the U.S. to shoot off India’s shoulders against Chinese technology giants. With the Principal Scientific Adviser, K. VijayRaghavan, also the head of the high-level panel on 5G, openly calling for the exclusion of Chinese players from national trials, the government has unwisely put all its cards on the table.

The U.S.-China technology rivalry is eminently political, one in which India should not take sides. If anything, New Delhi should take care to see history does not repeat itself. Much like the U.S.-Japan understanding on supercomputers, Osaka also saw the beginning of a U.S. rapprochement with China on technology trade: India must ensure whatever bilateral configuration that emerges from such talks does not restrict the sale of 5G equipment to others. There are no winners for India to pick in this battle: just decisions to be made coldly from the prism of economic self-interest.

Arun Mohan Sukumar is a PhD candidate at The Fletcher School, Tufts University and currently with the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.

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