Raisina 2024 Report: India Plays in Both Global South and Indo-Pacific Arenas

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Raisina 2024 Report: India Plays in Both Global South and Indo-Pacific Arenas

The conference was clearly less star-studded than last year but served an assorted menu of animated conversations.

Raisina 2024 Report: India Plays in Both Global South and Indo-Pacific Arenas

Indian External Affairs Minister, Dr. S. Jaishankar addressed the inaugural Raisina Quad Think Tank Forum in New Delhi, India, Feb. 24, 2024.

Credit: Indian Ministry of External Affairs

In New Delhi, they love to pack it in. Sessions in India’s flagship Raisina Dialogue 2024 began as early as 7:30 a.m. and stretched well into the night. I counted nearly 50 panel discussions and several keynotes and addresses over a period of three days. It was simultaneously overwhelming and stimulating.

Many international notables participated. Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis gave the headline address at the inaugural event with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in attendance. The United States sent Indo-Pacific Command Commander John Aquilino and Deputy Secretary of State and former Ambassador to India Richard Verma. Also present were the Dutch foreign and defense ministers and former Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt.

Former Bolivian President Jorge Quiroga, Panama’s Foreign Minister Janaina Tewaney, South Africa’s BRICS Sherpa Anil Sooklal, Brazilian Ambassador to the United Kingdom and former Foreign Minister Antonio Patriota, and former Indonesian Ambassador to the United States Dino Patti Djalal were among the key voices from the Global South. Australia’s ex-Prime Minister Tony Abbott and former Defense Minister Marise Payne were there, as were top cabinet officials from central European states – Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, and Ukraine, among others. As could be expected, a plethora of key Indian officials led by India’s charismatic foreign minister, S. Jaishankar, made their mark in several panels. Scores of prominent think-tankers, academics, and media personalities from multiple regions (but especially Europe) completed the list.

It was an impressive roster – yet clearly not as star-studded as Raisina 2023. The U.S. presence, in particular, underwhelmed. Of course, the context of last year’s event was the Quad foreign minister’s meeting held in conjunction with the conference and India’s G-20 presidency for the year. It was always going to be hard to match that standard.

Still, there was much to take away from the conference, organized by New Delhi’s leading think tank, the Observer Research Foundation, and India’s Ministry of External Affairs. Three major themes were most visible: security and military affairs (particularly in the Indo-Pacific), geoeconomics and de-risking, and the Global South’s push to restructure the global system and achieve the green transition.

Membership, even leadership, of the Global South has long been at the core of India’s geopolitical identity. As during last year’s event, New Delhi did not miss an opportunity to make this point. Jaishankar noted that reaching a global middle ground on many issues may not be possible, and states will find their own ground. While there will be no single leader of the Global South, India’s policies are about being part of as many groupings as possible, he asserted. Jaishankar also implicitly criticized China as being the biggest opponent to the expansion of the United Nations Security Council, even as he acknowledged the West’s reluctance on reform.

Indonesia’s Djalal advocated the G-20 as the most important forum for the Global South to raise its voice. He urged Global South states to focus less on the colonial past, and called on the West to  incorporate equality and mutual respect in dealing with the developing world.

Veteran Indian economist and former civil servant N.K. Singh, a co-author of last year’s G-20 report on the reform of multilateral banks, advocated bolder, bigger, and better such banks. “Political will has been elusive” for reform, he claimed. Panelists pointed to the criticality of attracting far more private capital to decarbonize the Global South, but also at a much lower cost.

The expanded BRICS got its own panel at the conference, in which speakers emphasized the reform aspect of the grouping. Some speakers also advocated respecting diversity in the international order extending to values, cultures, and civilizations. Russia’s Victoria Panova highlighted the necessity but also the challenge of global payment systems reforms and developing BRICS rankings independent of Western ones. She spoke of how several BRICS initiatives began at a technical level but were then taken up by leaders. Iran’s Daman Pak Jami framed BRICS as an attempt to reform the international order, but warned that it could be the foundation of an alternative one if the existing system cannot be reformed.

Even as India has spoken out strongly on themes relevant to the Global South, the rapid rise of China and serious spike in border tensions between the two Asian giants since 2020 has deepened a sense of distrust toward Beijing across the Indian political spectrum. It was impossible not to notice the complete absence of Chinese voices at Raisina 2024. India’s defense secretary calling China a “bully” in an off-conference appearance with Aquilino, the commander of USINDOPACOM, set the stage for panels on security and geoeconomics in which Beijing was implicitly and explicitly defined as a threat rather than an opportunity.

For instance, in a military-centered discussion on maritime security featuring Aquilino, the navy chiefs of India, France, and the United Kingdom; and the air force chief of Australia, speakers emphasized countering China’s rise in the Indo-Pacific. The key was “partnerships, partnerships, partnerships” according to France’s Admiral Nicolas Vaujour. 

Aquilino, noting that the United States now does 120 exercises a year in the Indo-Pacific, pushed the discussion toward a more geopolitical plane by emphasizing “the why” of partnerships. Clearly referring to China and Russia, he spoke of the unwillingness of the United States and its partners “to accept imposition of rules that counter what we believe in and stand for,” predictably pitching the contest as between democracies and autocracies. Aquilino was also upbeat on India-U.S. military cooperation, identifying integration of unmanned systems as one of the next tasks.

Panels on the Quad broadly welcomed the major uptick in the four-nation grouping’s meetings and activities in recent years. However, there was also a sense that the Quad was perhaps taking on too much and delivering less than promised. South Africa’s Sooklal made an eloquent argument for including Africa’s southern and eastern littoral in the concept of the Indo-Pacific and emphasized development and cooperation as the key areas of action in the region.

A passionate session on the Middle East unsurprisingly ended up focusing mostly on the Gaza conflict. Interestingly, there were no Israeli voices on the panel. Sharp and coherent remarks by Johns Hopkins’ Vali Nasr and editor from the UAE Mina al-Oraibi drew the most audience interest. Nasr dissected the paralysis in U.S. policy, Washington’s multiple failures, and potential impacts on the upcoming American election. Al-Oraibi spoke of the region’s “broken states” and the region’s sense of the victors being those bearing arms.

When it came to the Ukraine war and relations with Russia, Indian voices drew clear distinctions with Western policy, while maintaining their nuanced positions on the question. Former Indian Ambassador Bala Venkatesh Varma noted the concern in the Global South over Russia’s violations of sovereignty and territorial integrity. But he also spoke forcefully on how sanctions against Moscow were “self-developed” by the West and have no buy-in among the developing world, while praising India’s skillful diplomacy in achieving common language on Ukraine at the G-20 New Delhi summit.

Jaishankar pointedly critiqued the cognitive dissonance in the West’s approach, referring to “sets of policies to bring [Russia and China] together and then [warning] of them coming together.” He advocated giving Moscow options and warned against railroading Russia toward a single option (presumably China). Jaishankar also reflected on constructing a China-India equilibrium in the longer run but endorsed bringing other actors – presumably Western powers and Japan – into the competition on India’s side in current circumstances.

China also was generally framed as the biggest threat when it came to geoeconomics. Sweden’s Bildt observed that India and China’s voting patterns in the United Nations on Ukraine were identical, calling this “disturbing.” But he also warned against overdoing the securitization of economics – “an open world is a better world.” Bildt does not buy the idea that China is a “systemic rival” but endorsed the reality of competition, especially in the science and technology arena.

Theodore Bunzel of Lazard Geopolitical Advisory emphasized how the private sector has emerged at the heart of de-risking decisions, even as Chinese weakening has enhanced a sense of Western advantage. The proposed India-Middle East-Europe corridor (IMEC) got a fair bit of attention at the conference despite the geopolitical realities of conflict roiling the Middle East. There was much optimistic talk, but panelists generally struggled to convince on the practical steps needed toward its realization.

Bolivia’s Quiroga spoke for the more conservative constituencies in Latin America when he said that “our hearts are with Europe and the United States, but our pocketbooks are with China.” He expressed dismay at the West’s turn away from open trade and noted China’s openness and confidence when it came to signing trade agreements. Unless the West gets its act together, BRICS will increasingly fill the vacuum, he predicted. A few panelists also expressed concern at aspects of U.S. industrial policy and urged a greater opening to the world in laws such as the CHIPS and Science Act.

In sum, Raisina 2024 gave us a window on how India is navigating a turbulent global order – tilting clearly toward the West when it comes to security (with a major Russia exception), selectively partnering to further its geoeconomic interests on trade and supply chains, and simultaneously pushing global institutional reform for greater and greener spaces for the Global South. All this of course, with a very wary eye on China. It’s a complex challenge and will inevitably be marked by many twists and turns.