The first India-Australia virtual leaders’ summit on June 4 had a lot on the menu, ranging from military interoperability to jointly tackling COVID19.
The two countries upgraded their relations to a ‘comprehensive strategic partnership’.
The summit was noteworthy for its novel modus operandi.
Adapting to the times
Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Indian delegation were on a video conference call with Prime Minister Scott Morrison and the Australian delegation.
The dangers posed by COVID19 have compelled the traditionally glad handing, backslapping and tourism promoting art of summit diplomacy to adapt.
Just as corporations and educational institutions have migrated to online mediums, nation states are left with no choice but to do the same.
E-summits are physically safer for leaders and also timesaving and economising events where costly physical journeys with entourages can be avoided.
Mr. Modi has engaged in a few multilateral ‘e-diplomacy’ rounds since the COVID19 outbreak.
He convened the SAARC leaders’ video conference on March 15, joined the Extraordinary G20 Leaders’ Summit via video link on March 26, and made his maiden appearance at the NonAligned Movement virtual summit on May 4.
These were all singleissue focused and brief affairs.
But the bilateral summit with Australia was elaborate and involved the exchange of multiple agreements.
It has been a maxim in diplomacy that face to face interactions at the highest level mark the zenith of foreign relations.
The British scholar Ernest Satow dubbed summits “ a permanent feature of diplomatic topography”.
The formal negotiations during summits, the closed door restricted sessions, the fire side chats, the walks in the woods, the photoops and the outreach to live audiences in the host and home countries are all part of the package.
But now without all the protocols and structured dialogues in cozy settings, it is doubtful if major breakthroughs or deals requiring direct intervention of leaders can happen.
There is a danger that ‘ediplomacy’ will become less productive in terms of deliverables, especially where crucial sticking points need ironing out.
Threat to cyber security
Ediplomacy is riskier and could be subject to hacking of classified content, making the leaders warier.
artificial and unsatisfying the video conferencing medium is, key partners like India and Australia have to get on with it and hold highlevel meetings as part of their strategic signaling.
In person summits will restart one day. But the online interlude has to go on because diplomacy has to go on.