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Mainstream, VOL LVI No 1 New Delhi December 23, 2017 - Annual Number

India’s Outreach to the African Continent

Sunday 24 December 2017

by Rajaram Panda

India’s engagement with the African continent registered a new milestone when President Ram NathKovind made a visit to two African states —Ethiopia and Djibouti—in the first week of October 2017, during which many agreements, including on institutionalisation of foreign office consultations and greater economic cooperation, were signed. This was the President’s first trip abroad since taking office and the visit to Ethiopia was the first by an Indian President after 45 years. The last visit was by President V.V. Giri in 1972. Many Indian heads of state have visited this country since 1952, probably the most to any African nation. Among the past high-level visits to Ethiopia include the visit of Presidents Radhakrishinan, V.V. Giri, Vice President Zakir Hussein and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in 2011 when he led India at the Second India-Africa Forum Summit.

In particular, the choice of Djibouti was significant because it is an important Indian Ocean partner, a region which is central to Indian foreign policy, and with whom India’s bilateral trade stands at $ 284 million in 2016-17. India has extended a line of credit of $ 49 million to this strategically located tiny state just off the Gulf of Aden, mainly for constructing a cement plant. President Kovind appropriately observed: “Djibouti is a strategically located country, just off the Gulf of Aden. It is an important Indian Ocean partner for India.” Therefore, choosing Djibouti for his first visit abroad was a conscious decision. India is also appreciative of the fact that the tiny country, Djibouti, was the hub of operations and supportive of Indian efforts to evacuate its citizens during the Yemeni crisis of 2015 and helped in rescuing Indian citizens fleeing the civil war from Yemen in Operation Rahaat. That time, Djibouti extended India all facilities required to move thousands of people by air and sea and India acknowledges the strategic importance of Djibouti. 

Similarly, links with Ethiopia date back centuries. Bilateral trade with Ethiopia in 2016 stood at $ 1 billion. Ethiopia is among the top three foreign investment receiving countries with an approved investment of $ 4 billion. As many as 540 Indian companies have a presence there. Most of the Indian investments are in agriculture, engineering and textiles. The sizable number of Indian community in this country is also facilitator for promising and closer relationship between the two countries. Ethiopia continues to be the largest recipient of India’s concessional Lines of Credit in Africa. The concessional loans to Ethiopia total around $ 1 billion.

The geographic location of Djibouti provides it with a kind of strategic advantage because of which many countries, such as the US, France, Japan and more recently China, have established bases there. India too is looking for an oppor-tunity to get a strategic toehold there, perhaps to set up a base for anti-piracy monitoring and also as a counter to China’s increasing maritime footprint in the Indian Ocean area and beyond. The recent geopolitical developments have endowed both Ethiopia and Djibouti with strategic significance and hence saveral countries are keen to engage with them.

Ethiopia’s place in Africa is unique. Formerly Abyssinia, Ethiopia hosts the African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa. Its uniqueness lies in the fact that it is the only country in the continent never to have been colonised and therefore kept its African identity and culture unpolluted. This is reflected in its use of Amharic as its official language and script unlike other countries in the continent which lost theirs and use only the Roman script.

Djibouti is a small county with an estimated population of less than a million. It is one of the least populous in Africa and was colonised by France, which named it French Somaliland. It gained independence on June 27, 1977 from France and was the last of France’s colonies in Africa and assumed the name Djibouti. Since then it has acquired so much strategic importance that it has been many outside powers’ favourite.

The emergence of petroleum as an important strategic product raised the importance of the Persian Gulf region, which led to threats of disruption to maritime commerce because of increase in piracy and maritime terrorism since oil from the Middle East was transported by sea. This led to new global rules governing maritime trade in accordance with the UN rules, that are in constant threat. In order to secure safe transport of cargo, naval and military operations in the Gulf region became necessary. Djibouti emerged as an important strategic base because of this necessity.

The US negotiated with Djibouti to have a permanent naval expeditionary base, Camp Lemonnier, at the Djibouti airport for providing military support, forming a reconnaissance hub for drones across Africa and supporting aerial surveillance of the Persian Gulf. China was not to be far behind. It recently successfully negotiated a base facility with Djibouti ostensibly to provide logistical support for Chinese interests in the region as well as to start a base for its submarines. Djibouti is also important as its port handles heavy traffic since Ethiopia relies on it for all its trade after Eritrea broke away and left the country landlocked without access to the Red Sea.

As regards India, though it has historical relations with Africa and a number of high dignitaries visited the continent, the nature of that relationship was limited to education and social sectors. The strategic dimension gained prominence as the geopolitical situation underwent perceptible churning. The economic component of India’s relationship also remained low key. In case of French-speaking Djibouti, ties were not even noticed. Though Djibouti opened its embassy in New Delhi in 2004, India did not have diplomatic presence till the Yemen crisis erupted, leading India to shift its Consulate office to Djibouti in 2015. Besides the limited economic links from ancient times, its presence in that country is mainly through a handful of diaspora of Indian origin. The economic rise of India has thrown up opportunities for collaboration in which the role of diaspora can have an important role in building bridges between India and the world. India in a high growth trajectory path comes at an opportune moment when the world sees it with hope and as a stabilising force in a turbulent international environment.

As an aspiring power, and unlike a threatening power such as China, keen to be a permanent member of the UN Security Council, India does need the support of 54 African nations, which also makes compelling reason for it to engage with the African continent. President Kovind’s recent visit could also be seen from this perspective, besides recognition of Djibouti’s strategic importance in geopolitical terms.

Indians who migrated centuries ago to different continents under trying conditions, be it the Caribbean island countries, Africa, Fiji, South-East Asian countries or elsewhere, have consciously contributed to the economies of the countries of their adoption and smoothly got assimilated into the local cultural milieu. This can be testified in the remnants of Hindu architecture and cultural practices as in Vietnam’s Cham City, Indonesia’s Bali Island, Thailand, the Caribbean, and elsewhere in the world. These people went as traders or as skilled workers or even plain labourers but all of them worked selflessly with dedicated service to the countries of their adoption.

In view of India’s recognition of the importance of Djibouti present strategic relevance in the wake of the changing geopolitical situation, India is keen to develop economic and developmental partnership, especially in the fields of education, health, IT, agriculture, small scale industries, portable electricity generation, fisheries, and water resource development. From its side, Djibouti is also keen to forge partnership with India in these sectors. The response has been positive demonstrated by the increase in bilateral trade. The balance of trade is at present in India’s favour with India’s exports to Djibouti in 2012-13 accounting for $ 411.86 million while imports accounted for only $ 5.44 million. Most of the trade with Djibouti actually serve the growing market in Ethiopia. India needs to keep in mind to correct this abnormal situation by giving market access to more products from Djibouti.

But what lies behind President Kovind’s choice of the two countries as his first overseas visit is the intent to expand India’s footprint across resource-rich Africa against the backdrop of its strategic and economic rival, China, rapidly expanding its influence across the resource-rich African continent and in the Indian Ocean region. This does not mean to suggest that India neglected to engage with Africa in the past. What it seeks now is to re-fashion its ties with Africa. After the high of 1950s to the early 1980s, its influence waned through the 2000s. India then woke up to restore its healthy past when it hosted the first India-Africa Forum Summit with the aim of recasting its ties with the continent. This was followed up with new initiatives when it hosted more such summits—in 2011 in Addis Ababa and in New Delhi in 2015. Subsequently, as many as 16 visits by top political leaders including the President, Vice President, Prime Ministers and senior Ministers, have made the African continent as the destination to keep the engagement ongoing. The next India-Africa Summit is scheduled in 2020.

The contours of changing geopolitical dynamics can be explained when the US interest in Africa is on the wane and China’s strategic and economic footprint is on the rise. India appears to strike a balance, in fact check China’s advance in an area that it considers its sphere of influence and thereby seeks to underline its credentials as the dominant regional power and net provider of security.

With this view, President Kovind held wide-ranging discussions with his Djibouti counterpart, Ismail Omar Guellehon, on how to eradicate the menace of terrorism. The agreement to establish regular Foreign Office-level consultations underlined the need to engage jointly on regional and international issues of mutual concern. Both agreed that terrorism is a greater threat to mankind and global peace and stability. Both leaders agreed to work closely to intensify their cooperation in the United Nations and other multilateral fora in order to address current global challenges such as climate change and to foster international and regional peace and security, and sustainable development. An invitation by President Kovind to Guelleh to visit India at the earliest is likely to be reciprocated soon. Issues such as Djibouti’s support for India’s membership of the International Solar Alliance, maritime cooperation in the Indian Ocean Region and technical and capacity building assistance by India to enhance employment opportunities for Djibouti’s young people figured in the discussion.

In Ethiopia, President Kovind was received by his counterpart, Dr MulatuTeshame, at the Bole International Airport in Addis Ababa. President Kovind invited business stakeholders from Ethiopia and the region to partner with India and benefit from them. Addressing the India-Ethiopia Business Dialogue, organised to commemorate the 12th Anniversary of the India Business Forum, Kovind observed that India and Ethiopia had been trading with each other for centuries, and this trads flourished during the ancient Axumite Empire from the 1st century AD. The nature of economic ties have been widened now covering trade, private investment, concessional loans for infrastructure projects and development assistance, largely for capacity building.

India is at present among the top three foreign investors in Ethiopia. This has helped the manufacturing sector and value addition to local resources, besides creating jobs and contributing to the prosperity of Ethiopian families. Like in Djibouti, Kovind also had delegation-level talks with his Ethiopian counterpart, Mulatu Teshomo. Two major agreements were signed on Trade Facilitation and Information Communication and Media sector. India is also considering a fresh credit of $ 195 million for development of Ethiopia’s power transmission.

During the Third India-Africa Forum Summit in New Delhi in 2015, India had announced the offer of concessional credit of $ 10 billion over the next five years to Africa. Subsequently, India also committed a grant assistance of $ 600 million, which included an India-Africa Develop-ment Fund of $ 100 million and an India-Africa Health Fund of $ 10 million. The Asia-Africa Growth Corridor is another initiative that India has joined hands with Japan brimming with potential. Both India and Japan are pursuing this AAGC as a counter to China’s One Belt One Corridor (OBOR), which is suspected to have an expansionist agenda.

While delivering a lecture at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, a top American think-tank, in Washington on October 18, 2017 ahead of his maiden visit to India, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson openly supported New Delhi’s stand on China’s OBOR initiative, saying China’s financing of infrastru-cture projects results in enormous level of debt and underscored the need for an alternative financing model. Tillerson described China’s development model by pursuing OBOR as “predatory economics”.

What transpired from Kovind’s African sojourn was that the Modi Government is keen to expand India’s profile in Africa by invoking shared historical links at a time when major powers are scrambling for influence in the continent. Both India and Japan find common ground to cooperate on the AAGC as a counter to China’s OBOR whose agenda seems to be hidden and suspect. If China succeeds in building a robust military profile to back its increasing economic footprint in the African continent, it would be a matter of concern for the rest of the world. It is a happy situation that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has found an ally in Abe Shinzo of Japan to address this common challenge. It is timely and appropriate that the Modi Government in cooperation with Japan and the US assumes more international security responsibilities, while committing to contribute to the economic development of the African nations. President Kovind’s recent visited to the two African states should be viewed from this larger perspective.

Dr Panda is currently Indian Council for Cultural Relations India Chair Visiting Professor at the School of Economics and Business Administration, Reitaku University, Japan.

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