The US is weaponizing its innovation, technology and intellectual property ecosystem, just as the Chinese have leveraged their size and economic assistance for BRI

Mike Pence used to be a quiet sort of man, and the most you could say about him was that he stands an impeachment away from the presidency. He is now the face of America’s “outrage” at China – Pence, as the non-Trump, is seen as the “voice of Washington” rather than a president who is a free spirit on Twitter.

At the recent APEC summit, the vice president warned Asian nations against signing up for China’s BRI, offering a US alternative that “doesn’t drown our partners in a sea of debt” nor offer “a constricting belt or a one-way road”. In October, Pence’s comments at a US think tank were a tossed gauntlet. Accusing China of using “stolen technology” to turn “plow shares into swords” Pence laid a growing number of crimes at China’s doorstep: “an arsenal of policies inconsistent with free and fair trade, including tariffs, quotas, currency manipulation, forced technology transfer, intellectual property theft, and industrial subsidies doled out like candy”.

The truce called at the G-20 summit is merely a breather. China is unlikely to make the fundamental changes demanded, because China believes it’s winning. As trade and tech wars inevitably restart, India should understand that we may be heading towards another avatar of the Cold War. This time India will be right in the middle of the flying zingers.

America may be on the decline, at least there are many who believe so. But it’s not going to give up its ‘hyper power’ tag without an almighty battle. This is important, because it will affect not only India’s future as a knowledge power (particularly if Access Denied flashes on its screens) but also her strategic ambition.

In President Trump’s two years, there have been many U-turns, many withdrawals. But there has been one consistent thread – that China is out to eat America’s lunch and must be stopped. That has grown from a Trump tantrum to definite actions by Washington which will outlive Trump. A second layer of global tensions is the US’s continued antipathy to Russia – here, Capitol Hill has the bit between its teeth, and will seek to make things increasingly difficult for Moscow and friends (that’s us). If President Putin’s depredations in Kerch Strait are a taste of his larger ambition of restoring the old Russian empire, it will ultimately impact us.

All this puts pressure on a central tenet of India’s foreign policy, a romantic notion that it can be everything to everyone. We saw a sweet display of this JAI-Veeru act in Argentina, where Prime Minister Narendra Modi ran from the Japan-US room to the Russia-China one, but no one was fooled. Russia is a realist power, a favourite of the Indian state. China is a threat of myriad hues, but an economic opportunity. America is, as Manmohan Singh said, “a transformational power” for India, as is Japan.

India should expect to be called upon to make very big, strategic choices going forward. Since the new Cold War (there must be a better description for this) is about innovation, technology and intellectual property, India’s present promiscuity in these areas could become a problem.

For instance, India has expended a lot of diplomatic capital to work the US Congress for a sanctions exemption for the S-400. Every time India buys new weapon systems from Russia, it will have to go through the same rigmarole in Washington. On the other hand, Russia will promise havoc on India if we fail to buy Russian; the Putin-Modi summit this year was remarkable for the fact that it was all about one S-400 signature, nothing else, not even Rajghat.

Again, while Indians were hyperventilating about CAATSA, the US produced the FIRRMA Act, intended solely to limit Chinese acquisitions and investments by putting them through the wringer – but since the law doesn’t mention jurisdictions, some Indian investments in the US will be subjected to the same review, especially if Indian companies have Chinese investments in them. Are we prepared?

The US is weaponizing its innovation, technology and intellectual property ecosystem, just as the Chinese have leveraged their size and economic assistance for BRI. This will have serious foreign policy and economic implications, where again India will be forced to make some tough choices. For instance, US is now telling its friends to stop using Huawei telecom products. India is not an ally, but has been working ever closer with the US. On the other hand, Huawei has a big centre in India and many will tell you that the US move on Huawei is merely to protect markets for US companies. Also true. But India needs greater clarity, to determine our strategic future. I worry that might get lost in the fuzzy warmth of the relentless summitry.

On the face of it, the US’s muscular approach to China is music to Indian ears. India even hopes to turn into advantage some of the benefits of the burgeoning US-China quarrel, opening China’s rice, soybean, sugar, pharma markets to Indian exports. Despite this, the government thrives on ambiguity because it’s useful in diplomatic fudge. So our Indo-Pacific policy is a direct counter to China’s BRI, but we’re afraid the Quad will spook the Chinese. Only we believe our nonsense.

In 2008, India dismantled a 40-year technology sanctions regime against itself. We sometimes forget India was not the central target of those sanctions, it was the Soviet Union. We shouldn’t be similarly blind-sided again.