‘Make in India’ courts East Asia


A high demand for smartphones in India - Nicolas Mirguet via Flickr Creative Commons

A high demand for smartphones in India – Nicolas Mirguet via Flickr Creative Commons

Launched in 2014, ‘Make in India’ is a foreign policy initiative of Modi’s government in India. As its title suggests, the initiative is India’s biggest push to date to become a world-leading manufacturing centre.

Although most sectors are covered, from heavy industry to hospitality, the initiative reaches out to high tech manufacturing firms, to encourage them to relocate their production facilities to India. ‘Make in India’ takes Modi’s policies as Gujarat’s Chief Minister between 2001 and 2014, which embraced foreign direct investment and business friendly approaches in a policy package commonly dubbed ‘Modi-nomics’ and pins them to a bigger canvas (although critics have noted Gujarat remains the principle beneficiary on both canvasses). A successful ‘Make in India’ programme is proof of concept at national scale for Modi’s model of business-led trickle-down growth, and justifies some of the core principles of a Modi led government.

‘Make in India’ is also a playful nod to decades of economic growth in the wider Asian region. Successive countries in east Asia have held the dubious status of being the world’s technology factory. The ‘Made in Japan’, ‘Made in Korea’, ‘Made in Hong Kong’, ‘Made in Taiwan’, and now ‘Made in China’ stickers on electronics from transistor radios, scientific calculators, personal stereos, mobile phones and tablets have traced the changing geography of tech manufacturing over the last 40-50 years. This brings us to the present when Sony televisions, Acer computers, Samsung and Xiaomi smartphones now dominate consumption in India. Concerns over India’s heavy reliance on foreign imports – but more specifically foreign skills in high tech manufacturing – has pushed domestic manufacturing targets for Make in India to unrealistic levels.

In a further push to support ‘Make in India’ Modi visited several of these vital manufacturing countries in May this year on his six-day-three-nations tour of China, South Korea and Mongolia (its fast-growing information technology sector boosted by UN development programming).

What are the prospects of wooing high tech East Asian manufacturers to India? Ever since journals like The Economist and consultancies like Price WaterHouse Coopers started surveying CEOs of top companies every year, Asia has developed a reputation for falling short on its knowledge economy and infrastructure. On the whole, India ranks far lower on these measures than Hong Kong, South Korea, Japan and China, and languishes in the mid-table, despite the country’s wide use of English and the fast-growing population of Indian managers with overseas experience. Despite the fanfare of Modi’s tour, the response has been lukewarm – to date Samsung have dipped their toe with a modest contract manufacturing agreement, while others, Sony, Xiaomi, have expressed an interest or ‘made plans’.

India’s relatively weak position is further weakened by its lack of cultural power in the region. This is partly the result of decades of isolation due to poor-to-no foreign policy engagement in East Asia, empty rhetoric (e.g. Look East policy of the past Congress-led government) and a previous lack of staff and appropriate cultural programming in Indian consulates in the region. Modi has attempted to reverse this since coming to power. Observers have already discussed Modi’s Buddhist diplomacy  and his three-nations tour in May allowed him to showcase both the practice of yoga, and to promote the academic discipline of Gandhian political philosophy, leaving behind a clear road map for cultural consular employees to pursue with twinned cities and institutions.

Are these soft policy approaches as important to East Asian tech companies as Make in India’s regulatory and financial incentives? This is less a discourse about cultural competence, which dominates relations between Western Europe or North America and East Asia, and more a discourse about cultural rendering. Is India Asian in the same way that Japan and China are Asian? Is ‘Asian’ too broad and too empty an envelope or is it flexible enough to allow for close quarter production networks, as well as regional competition (e.g. over Myanmar) and also geopolitical cooperation (e.g. containing, China, India and Japan concurrently).

‘Make in India’, is far from being a simple invitation to high tech (and other) companies to produce their goods in India. Instead it gathers around it India’s latest and strongest approaches to inculcate its Asian credentials in the region. The presentation of these credentials by India and the their acceptance by East Asia Inc. is part of an ongoing process, bigger than the prospects for India-made Xiaomi smartphones and Sony smart watches.

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