Raisina Dialogue: The importance of diplomacy in a 'complex' 2020

This year’s Raisina Dialogue was a space for global leaders to hammer out the most challenging geopolitical and geo-economic issues facing the world today. But amidst the big countries locking horns – over Iran-US tensions, India’s contentious citizenship law, and the US-China trade war – there’s a place, and a lesson, for New Zealand, writes the Foundation's director research and engagement Suzannah Jessep.
Suzannah Jessep (left) with Katie Bradford and Manjeet Pardesi

Suzannah Jessep (left) with fellow Rasina Dialogue attendees journalist Katie Bradford and academic Manjeet Pardesi

2020 has already delivered its fair share of global disorder.

We have seen our close neighbour, Australia, tackle raging bushfires; Iran launch missile strikes at US forces in Iraq; and now the coronavirus outbreak.

Add intensifying US-China competition and Brexit and you could be forgiven for wanting to tune out of international affairs. But as Joseph Kennedy once said, ‘when the going gets tough, the tough get going.’

This is the time when our diplomacy is more important than ever.   

In January India hosted the Raisina Dialogue - the largest international affairs conference in South Asia, jointly organised by India’s Ministry of External Affairs and thinktank the Observer Research Foundation. 

This year, Raisina brought together 700 participants from over 100 countries, including 12 foreign ministers and numerous other former heads of government and private sector leaders. Raisina is known for its great panel debates, bringing together countries with opposing worldviews and making them hammer out their differences on stage.  But this year we also heard from India’s leaders – at a time when India is coming under intensifying domestic pressure for its slowing economic growth and decisions related to citizenship and the administration of Kashmir.

India argues these are domestic matters, for India to manage. Others, however – including those at Raisina – argued that these decisions are changing the social fabric of India and fomenting an unwelcome division between India’s Hindu and Muslim communities.

On RCEP, India’s Commerce Minister Piyush Goyal dashed any hope that India might sign RCEP sometime soon. Goyal said that India recognised that the deal would have been ‘good for diplomatic relations but bad for trade.’ India felt the agreement didn’t offer India sufficient inventive to trade with more advanced economies nor protections to manage what India sees as China’s unfair trading practices.

Raisina this year was dominated by the presence of Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zari, who arrived in Delhi just six days after Iran launched missiles at US forces in Iraq. Zari told us that the US was being unjustly provocative in its decision to unilaterally assassinate Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani and was deliberately fomenting instability in the Middle East.

Russia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Sergei Lavrov, presented on the day President Putin announced sweeping constitutional reforms preceding the resignation of government.  Lavrov echoed Zari’s sentiments, arguing the US was being selective in its adherence to international law and that its Indo-Pacific strategy was merely a ruse to contain China.

The US was represented at Raisina by a range of senior officials, including Deputy National Security Adviser Matthew Pottinger, who hit back at the assertions made by Zarif and Lavrov.  Pottinger pointed to Iran’s close association with North Korea, China and Russia and questioned what they talk about when they get together: "what kind of face recognition softwares you use to recognise protesters?" or how to make a "better debt trap?"

You might assume in this environment that New Zealand is tucked away down the back of the room, scribbling notes about the worrying state of international affairs. Not so. Former Prime Minister Helen Clark was invited to open the conference alongside six other former heads of state and spoke of international relations from the perspective of a small country with big interests in preserving the rules and systems that have enabled countries like ours to engage and prosper.

New Zealand’s Deputy Chief of Navy, Commodore Melissa Ross (of Ngā Puhi descent) – herself a trailblazer as the first woman in New Zealand’s naval history to achieve Commodore rank and be posted as Deputy Chief of Navy – presented at the coveted Foreign Secretary’s dinner on the opening night of Raisina.  Ross spoke about women, peace and security and New Zealand’s enduring partnership with the Pacific.

One of New Zealand’s leading academics on South Asia, Manjeet Pardesi, and senior TVNZ reporter, Katie Bradford, also attended as part of the Asia New Zealand Foundation’s delegation, and have reported in their experiences through media and academic channels. New Zealand diplomats were also present and active. 

Making an impact in regional affairs, particularly during tumultuous times when big countries are locking horns, is a matter of increasing focus among the governments and scholars of smaller countries. How small states get their voice heard and maintain an independent foreign policy like New Zealand’s is not easy at a time of so-called strongman politics as exemplified by Xi Jinping, Donald Trump, Narendra Modi and Vladimir Putin.

If there was one message from Raisina for smaller countries, it was the importance of staying connected, deepening our understanding, building partnerships and working with like-minded countries to ensure we are part of the conversation. New Zealand’s active diplomacy at all levels, across the public and private sector, has given New Zealand an outsize impact on shaping the rules governing our region. Looking ahead to the complex challenges we face in 2020 and beyond, our collective diplomacy can only become more important.

About the author

Suzannah Jessep is the Foundation's director research and engagement. She joined the Foundation in March 2019 after serving as New Zealand’s Deputy High Commissioner to India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Deputy Ambassador to Nepal and as New Zealand’s Deputy High Commissioner to Vanuatu.  During her thirteen years in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, she also served in the Ministry’s Australia, Pacific and Europe Divisions, and in the area of Antarctic and security policy.

This article was first published on the Asia Media Centre