On Wednesday, January 15, 2020, I could hear the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov striking the U.S. with short diplomatic jabs. Later on the same day, I listened to a much more outspokenly anti-American interview with his Iranian counterpart Javad Zarif. The next day, I attended a debate featuring the U.S. Deputy National Advisor Matt Pottinger, where he took little shots at China, Russia and Iran. And, most obviously, there was the Indian Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar presenting his perspective on global affairs. At how many global events one can get to hear so many divergent views?
I was not at the United Nations. The conference I was attending was the 2020 Raisina Dialogue in Delhi. Raisina is India’s prime diplomatic event: its own, however modest, analog to the Shangri-La Dialogue. It is New Delhi’s ambitious attempt at building its image and showing its place in the world. So what are its other main takeaways?
First, the reputation of the conference has certainly grown since its inception. This time, beside a host of other guests, it was attended by 12 foreign ministers. The keynote speaker’s baton was to be held by the Prime Minister of Australia, who unfortunately had to cancel due to the bush fires in his country, however.
And yet, one cannot say that the Raisina Dialogue already represents “India’s World.” By this, I mean that a diplomatic event of a great power is somewhat akin to the review of an army before a war, once all of the allies and vassals have dispatched their auxiliary forces to the rallying point. The Bejing-hosted Xiangshan Forum, for instance, is a pretty good review of China’s world. On the level of diplomacy realized by its security forces, it brings together especially the high delegations of those states that are important for Beijing and those that want to be important for Beijing.
The Raisina Dialogue does not have that rank yet. Or rather one should say that India does not have the position to attract such delegations that would fully reflect New Delhi’s global aspirations; India is not a global power, after all. India’s neighbors were represented well, apart from China and Pakistan. Both this presence and this lack reflect New Delhi’s policy and standing. But while the Australian prime minister was supposed to come, really senior figures – a foreign minister-level or a head of state – were missing in the case of some of the nations that the Indians would really like to see on the red carpet during an event such as this. These, I reckon, would include: India’s chief partner in East Asia (Japan), biggest partner in Europe (France) and, above all, the one global power with which New Delhi wants to be closest: the United States.
However, the region of Central-Eastern Europe was surprisingly well-represented. Hungary, Czechia, Latvia, Estonia, and Denmark all had sent their foreign ministers to the event. But one can hardly take it as evidence of India’s special relationship with this region, or with most of these nations. It would be also far-fetched to claim that India has become much more significant for these nations (although Hungary is certainly betting on its outreach towards eastern countries and Budapest has more intense diplomatic relations with New Delhi than its three V4 partners). While I do not suggest that the level of participation at the event is random, it is certainly below India’s aspirations.
Moreover, while Raisina did bring the Russians and Americans to the same venue, it would be equally far-fetched to take it as a sign that New Delhi is any closer to realizing its objective of “strategic autonomy.” The Russian delegation is a traditional guest at Raisina while, as mentioned, a U.S. delegation of equal rank had not come. And yet the real state of relations appears to be reversed: it was New Delhi’s cooperation and bonhomie with Moscow that had been weakened in recent years, while the one with Washington has clearly grown.
Furthermore, the “Indo-Pacific” was clearly the buzzword at the meeting. One could hear it spoken often, and it was present in as many as three of the panel debates (this one, this one and this one, not to speak of this discussion and this report, presented during the conference). While it is always packed in carefully chosen words, and described in such ways as coming together of the nations of this region that value democracy, freedom of navigation, etc., there is no doubt that this notion serves as an abbreviation for cooperation against China. Neither an alliance, nor a formalized mechanism – indeed, nothing formal at all – the Indo Pacific is so far a rhetorical way to check who is on the same side and on the same page when it comes to challenging the PRC’s growing presence in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. It was clear that this notion is important for India and for some of its partners represented at the forum – and probably that New Delhi wanted to signal to them that it considers the idea as significant.
Finally, despite the above, the event seemed to confirm New Delhi’s present policy of not seeking a direct face-off with Beijing, while being at odds with China at a number of levels. The subjects of the debates and the choices of their speakers did not suggest that the conference is a rallying point for anti-Chinese forces; indeed, the event was not aimed at any select target. Yes, the Indo-Pacific concept was there, and one of the discussions was devoted solely to Hong Kong (without a voice from the PRC’s side). But there was not that much direct belligerence when high-ranking Indian officials spoke of China. Indian generals, however, were much more outspoken (as we can hear here, for instance). While New Delhi has recently decided not to join the RCEP (the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership), two seemingly conflicted statements were raised during Raisina. The country’s foreign minister did not rule out coming back to the negotiation table, while the commerce minister Piyush Goyal declared that India cannot be a part of RCEP as long as China is. One a more general note, S. Jaishankar declared during the event that India and China “have no choice but to find equilibrium.” This is certainly what India needs to do globally – and Raisina Dialogue is one indication of it.