China’s Conference Diplomacy: Lessons for India

Originally published as Jabin T. Jacob, ‘China’s Conference Diplomacy’, Organiser, Vol. 66, No. 26, 28 December 2014, pp. 40-41.

In a roughly 30-day period beginning late October 2014, China hosted a major international military dialogue called the Xiangshan Forum, the World Internet Conference, the Fourth Ministerial Conference of the Istanbul Process on Afghanistan, a UN meeting on the role of geospatial information in promoting sustainable development as well as an international conference each on humanitarian rules governing military operations and anti-hijacking. In addition, the Chinese government offered to host an informal defence ministers’ conference of all ASEAN countries in 2015, and has been designated host of the G20 summit in 2016. Together these give us a sample of the literally hundreds of meetings of international organizations and associations that China hosts round the year in addition to normal bilateral diplomatic meetings. Add to these, are the regular conferences that China has begun organizing on its new Silk Road initiatives all across the country where dozens of participants from Asia and around the world participate.

China’s ‘conference diplomacy’ represents its strong belief in the value of reaching out as often as possible to foreign intellectual and policy elites and of ensuring that these elites hold positive impressions of the country. This then feeds into larger policy and diplomatic successes for China at the regional and global levels. Beijing has, in fact, even begun identifying and inviting those of younger generations who are potentially future thought leaders and policymakers.


Prime Minister Narendra Modi has logged thousands of international miles since he assumed office six months ago. He has met all the major world leaders, addressed the UN General Assembly, and hosted all the SAARC leaders at home for his swearing-in as well as the Chinese and Russian presidents. Modi’s schedule and indeed, those of his Foreign Minister, Sushma Swaraj, and her deputy, Gen. V. K. Singh, might stand out in comparison with those of their counterparts in the previous UPA regime but what the NDA government has done is merely bring India up to speed. Modi and his ministers will have a lot more foreign trips to make and leaders and summits to host if they are to discharge their responsibilities fully.


However, since neither the Prime Minister, nor even the Foreign Minister, can travel everywhere and all the time, they will need greater support at home. There are several problems here, however.


One, the Indian government needs an able and well-oiled establishment where diplomats, military officials and scholars work in tandem to both provide analyses and ideas as well as to implement national objectives but there is, at the moment, no such establishment. India’s area studies programmes are hopelessly underfunded and even experts can barely speak the language of the countries or regions they are studying. The tiny size of the Indian Foreign Service is both a joke and source of frustration among embassies in New Delhi. Despite this, the Ministry of External Affairs is often reluctant to take on additional help in the form of lateral entry from other government or non-government services. Given its pyramid-shaped hierarchy and the large number of officers reaching superannuation, the Indian military could, in fact, provide a regular supply of officers with excellent qualifications and experience to take on diplomatic tasks across the globe with just a little more additional training.


India’s lack of adequate numbers of qualified foreign language speakers is another huge shortcoming in its diplomacy. Many Indians speak French and Spanish but very few Indian students, tourists and diplomats actually wish to study, travel or be posted in Africa and Latin America, respectively, where these languages are spoken in the greatest numbers. The Chinese, on the other hand, understand that the centre of global growth and dynamism is shifting to these Third World continents and are sending their students, tourists, and diplomats out in large numbers to build a foundation for economic cooperation and political friendship. In the process, they also help promote Chinese worldviews abroad.

DSCN4476-cultural show Turpan, Xinjiang

And what of India’s near neighbourhood? Despite our heavy energy dependence on the countries of West Asia, the threat of terrorism and several nuclear weapons programmes in the neighbourhood, how many Indians speak Arabic or Pashto or Persian? Indians talk about their close historical ties with Central Asia but there are very few Indians who actually speak Turkish or any of the region’s languages. Surely such linguistic skills are both a security and political necessity for Indian national interests?


Further, how is India going to convert ‘Look East’ to ‘Act East’ if it does not have adequate numbers of diplomats, military officers, scholars and businessmen who speak Chinese, Japanese, Bahasa Indonesia, Burmese, Malay or Thai? Despite the long and close ties with Vietnam, how many Indians government officials actually speak Vietnamese? Chinese capabilities in this regard are truly astounding – any major event they organize will have both liaison officers speaking different foreign languages and simultaneous interpretation into multiple languages during conference sessions.


Two, despite its image as a rising power, India simply lacks the physical infrastructure to host conferences and foreign delegations anywhere beyond the big cities. And sometimes even the major cities fall short in terms of proper transport infrastructure, and adequate numbers of good quality and affordable hotel rooms. The last factor is in fact a major hassle and expense for organizations wishing to host events in India with the result that international conferences often do not have too many participants in order to keep within budget. Hotel rooms in Chinese cities, on the other hand, are abundant, clean, well-maintained and relatively cheaper. China has also used major international events to build up infrastructure not just in the national capital but in other major cities as well, whereas in India, New Delhi is inevitably the host of most international events.


Three, India’s default policy of making visas for conference participation or research purposes extremely difficult to obtain is actually stupid and short-sighted. The Chinese, by contrast, realize the value of interacting with international intellectual and policy elites as often as possible in order to learn what views of China they hold and to create opportunities to counter or disprove negative views, if any.


By keeping out scholars trying to learn more about India, New Delhi loses opportunities to influence them and only strengthens negative opinions or misperceptions about the country. In China, even many foreign scholars and politicians who are critical of the Chinese government are welcome and free to travel and to speak at academic and research and government institutions in China.


Confidence, organization and a practically permanent cadre of educated young Chinese to act as liaison officers round the clock at international conferences – all of these add to considerable propaganda value and goodwill for China. India’s poor record of safety for international tourists, of organization of major events – think the 2010 Commonwealth Games mess – and poorly-trained human resources, on the other hand, offer a stark contrast. For India to catch up with China will take time but to begin with, mindsets need to change immediately, and massive investments in area studies and foreign language programmes, in think-tanks and research institutions, and in the expansion of the Indian Foreign Service need to start today.

Published by Jabin T. Jacob

China analysis from an Indian perspective

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