IF there has been one segment of India's foreign policy on which there has always been a multi-party consensus all along, it is the ties with Africa. Over the decades, India has provided diplomatic and material support to the struggle of African countries to get rid of colonial rule and the apartheid, which has helped ground the ties between India and Africa on a firm emotional foundation. It is this foundation from where India's outreach to Africa has expanded over the decades without ever becoming a victim of ideological differences at home among Indian political parties, as say in the case of ties with the United States, the former Soviet Union, Russia and China. India's African journey has resonated across the spectrum.
There has been a frequent exchange of high-level visits of Indian and African leaders in the last ten years culminating in India hosting a mega-summit of top leaders from 40 African countries in 2015. India's relations with African countries have progressed at a steady pace with New Delhi entering into a structured engagement with them with the launch of the first India-Africa Forum Summit in 2008 in New Delhi. This was followed by the two more India-Africa Forum Summits in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in 2011, and in New Delhi in October 2015. Indian President Ram Nath Kovind, Vice President M Venkaiah Naidu and Prime Minister Narendra Modi have visited Africa in the last 3-4 years and are likely to visit that continent again this year.
A measure of the intensity of India's engagement with Africa can be gauged from the fact that over 40 percent of New Delhi's soft loans has been to African countries, and Indian companies have substantially increased their presence in Africa. On March 21 this year, the Indian cabinet approved the setting up of new Indian diplomatic missions in 18 African countries over a four-year period between 2018 and 2021. The new missions will be opened in Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Cape Verde, Chad, Republic of Congo, Djibouti, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Liberia, Mauritania, Rwanda, São Tomé and Príncipe, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Swaziland and Togo, thereby increasing the number of Resident Indian missions in Africa from 29 to 47 in one stroke. The decision will not only ramp up India's diplomatic outreach in the African continent but also allow engagement with the Indian diaspora in African countries.
Of late, the two sectors that have received a good deal of attention from India and Africa are trade and security cooperation. As Indian Commerce Minister Suresh Prabhu said at a recent conclave in New Delhi, India would negotiate a free trade agreement with the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) which he said will be unique in nature and will be beneficial to Africa's requirements. Trade between India and Africa was estimated at USD 53 billion which New Delhi considers far below potential. So, it wants efforts to not only increase the volume of trade but also diversify the trade basket. The Indian Commerce Ministry is revamping export insurance and the Project Export Promotion Council to give boost to India's exports to Africa. Besides, India is seeking to set up a new India–Africa Development Fund which would seek to synergise the Lines of Credit as well as other export promotion and development programmes to bring about a more holistic development of the continent. India and Japan are in talks to set up the Asia–Africa Growth Corridor, which is considered a strategic response to China's Belt Road Initiative.
On the security front, India's single biggest contribution towards peace and conflict resolution in Africa is best evident in its expansive participation in the UN peace keeping efforts in African countries over the last six decades. More than 6,000 Indian peacekeepers are today deployed in five peacekeeping operations in Africa, including in South Sudan and Democratic People's Republic of Congo. India has defence and security cooperation with all littoral states in the Indian Ocean region, including South Africa, Mozambique, Tanzania, Kenya, Seychelles, Mauritius and Madagascar as well as with Nigeria, Tanzania and Egypt. The range of bilateral security cooperation includes training, infrastructural development assistance, peace-keeping, defence agreements, joint naval exercises and defence equipment transfers.
Terrorism and other conflicts in Africa have time and again thwarted economic progress in Africa. Piracy, cross-border threats, and transnational crimes, including narcotics, trafficking and cybercrimes, have lent a new dimension to the problem, fuelling instability in the region. What is needed is not just deepening but also widening of security engagements between India and Africa. This may call for looking at a security paradigm that goes beyond the existing one. Behind India's courtship of Africa lies India's quest for a seat in the UN Security Council and Africa, with a strength of 54 countries, is important in New Delhi's calculus.
It is often tempting to compare India's foray into Africa with the much more aggressive push by China in that continent. Armed with much bigger financial muscle, China has set its economic footprints in Africa much ahead of India. But there is a fundamental difference in the approaches of India and China towards Africa. In undertaking big infrastructure and other economic projects in Africa, China's eyes are firmly on its rich mineral resources and transporting them for factories back home.
More importantly, China brings its own workers for the projects in Africa, thereby ruling out any scope for generating local jobs. This has often led to resentment among locals in several African countries. By contrast, India's approach is non-prescriptive and allows African countries to decide their own priorities in choosing projects funded by soft loans from India. Secondly, India also helps skilling African workers by providing them training before involving many of them in those projects. It is a difference between the hard-nosed commercial approach of China and use of less than transactional approach of India.
Pallab Bhattacharya is a special correspondent of The Daily Star.