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The Raisina Dialogue hosted a panel featuring top officials from India, Australia, France and Japan. Photo: AP

China looms large even in its absence at India’s Raisina Dialogue, as experts discuss trade and security

  • If concerns about China had been muted in the past, they were never far from the surface at this year’s gathering in New Delhi
  • Russian foreign minister accused the US of seeking to exclude China but Washington and its allies were prepared to push back

During a panel discussion at last week’s Raisina Dialogue featuring top military officials from India, Australia, France and Japan, the moderator turned to the Indian navy chief Admiral Karambir Singh and asked: “How true is the statement that the number one, two and three concerns of this [Indo-Pacific] region are China, China and China?”

There was stifled laughter from the audience in New Delhi but Singh calmly listed India’s concerns. The Chinese presence in the region, he said, had grown rapidly and Chinese warships had encroached into Indian waters, forcing New Delhi to issue warnings.

The moderator, BBC journalist Yalda Hakim, pressed Singh: “Do they back off?” Not yet, he replied.

Are Indonesia, Vietnam and Malaysia about to get tough on Beijing’s South China Sea claims?

The conversation epitomised the irony of the Raisina Dialogue, the India’s Foreign Ministry’s annual gathering of hundreds of experts in diplomacy and security.

China was not officially represented but its actions – particularly its trade and maritime strategies – cast a long shadow over the three-day meeting. Chinese participation in the Raisina Dialogue has always been tepid: no serving Chinese officials have ever attended but Chinese academics and experts have often taken part.

It led one audience member to point out that at last year’s conference, China was the elephant in the room. The concerns were there but remained muted, he said, and such concerns were now being expressed more openly.

The Indo-Pacific question

The US defines the Indo-Pacific as stretching from the west coast of India to the west coast of the US – criss-crossing the Indian Ocean and encompassing Southeast Asia.


Over the last decade, China’s aggressive expansion in the South China Sea and increased military activity have raised the hackles of the US and its allies. However, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov in New Delhi took aim at the Indo-Pacific construct and the broader US strategy.

Addressing the conference, Lavrov asked: “Why do you need to call Asia-Pacific as Indo-Pacific? The answer is evident: to exclude China. Terminology should be unifying, not divisive.”

His view did not find much support among the conference speakers. Indeed, more than in past years, India mounted a vocal defence of the Indo-Pacific strategy, a departure from its previously cautious stance.

What’s the difference between Indo-Pacific and Asia-Pacific?

India’s Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale said the Indo-Pacific concept was “relevant to the region, [which] will benefit economically as well as in terms of security”.

David Johnston, the Australian navy’s vice-chief, and Luc de Rancourt, deputy director of international relations at France’s Ministry of Armed Forces, also backed the Indo-Pacific concept.

Separately, Johnson defended the “Quad” – an informal strategic military grouping between the US, Japan, Australia and India – while Rancourt expressed concerns about China’s presence in Djibouti, strategically located on the Horn of Africa.

US calls the tune

Lavrov may have sought to frame the argument against US-led multilateralism in the region but representatives of the US and its allies were prepared to push back, even at the risk of excluding China.


Amy Searight served as assistant secretary for South and Southeast Asia in the US Defence Department during the Obama administration. She is now director of the Centre of Strategic International Studies’ Southeast Asia programme.

“The [Indo-Pacific] strategy is not meant to contain China but rather counter it in areas where its influence is seen as being problematic,” she said. “[The idea is to] counter China by building up a coalition and understanding principles, and a rules-based order so that there is peer pressure on China and its behaviour is more benign and less problematic.”

Has the US already lost the battle for the South China Sea?

US deputy national security adviser Matt Pottinger went further. Responding to Lavrov’s remarks about closer ties being forged between Russia, Iran and China, Pottinger questioned the principles that might unite those countries, such as “what kind of face recognition softwares you use to recognise protesters” or how to make a “better debt trap”.

General Koji Yamazaki, chief of staff of Japan’s armed forces, offered his support, insisting a strong alliance between the US and Japan in the Indo-Pacific was “indispensable” to ensure Chinese activities were kept in check.

How trade shapes the region

On Wednesday, the second day on the conference, the US and China announced a partial trade agreement, potentially signalling a de-escalation in the countries’ 18-month trade war. The development was inevitably reflected in conversations about trade.


Indian commerce minister Piyush Goyal backed the US decision to impose tariffs and disrupt trade flows in response to trade deficits with certain countries. He said India had “clearly” faced discrimination, noting that India had opened its market to imports without gaining access to other markets in return, resulting in trade deficits.

“What President Trump did was just a wake-up call,” he said. “It was not as if the World Trade Organisation (WTO) was performing very efficiently.”

Goyal even blamed China for India’s withdrawal from the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, the 15-nation free trade agreement known as RCEP.

China’s in, but, without India, is ‘world’s largest trade pact’, the RCEP, still such a big deal?

“We had very serious concerns about the way China was carrying out trade, and the ways in which the Chinese ecosystem is locked down,” he said.

China is one of India’s largest trading partners but the balance sheet is lopsided: China’s exports to India are worth US$75 billion while Indian exports are worth US$18 billion, according to data released by the Chinese government on Thursday.

Dr Shen Dingli, professor of international relations at Beijing’s Fudan University, was one of the few participants from the Chinese mainland attending the Raisina Dialogue. He predicted this imbalance would remain.

“The simple fact is, China produces goods that India needs whereas the same cannot be said, in equal measure, about India,” he said. “That and the fact that China’s manufacturing is far more superior, its labour is cheaper, means that China will have an edge over India in trade.”

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This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: China looms big at India conclave