By Shibdas Bhattacharjee
It is often said that the coming decades will be of Afro-Asian dominance in the global forum. Both the continents Asia and Africa emerging as important stakeholders in international affairs is no doubt phenomenon. In fact, the process has already begun as big parleys like China and France focusing more on engaging with the African nations in the strategic and economic fronts. Now where does India stand in this changed global order? This bears special significance not only for India but for the nations of Africa as well. Considering all these, recently concluded visit of Vice President M Venkaiah Naidu to the African nations may be perceived as a major diplomatic initiative by New Delhi.
This is true that the number of engagement with the African nations has increased remarkably after Prime Minister Modi decided to reset India’s diplomatic agenda. However, there is a noticeable difference between the engagements happened so far and the one embarked by Vice President Naidu. So far, India’s engagement with Africa remained confined into relations with South Africa. Other nations of Africa having great strategic significance remained outside the purview of New Delhi’s diplomatic initiatives. Naturally, India-Africa relations have not proved to be productive for India despite potentialities.
In this context, Vice President Venkaiah Naidu’s recent visit to Comoros and Sierra Leone is of greater significance. It was the first-ever visit by such a high-level Indian delegation to these countries. In his first engagement in Comoros, the Vice President addressed the Indian diaspora and urged them to join in scripting New India’s growth story narrated with three Ds—Democracy, Demand and Demographic dividend. Leadership of Comoros seemed much enthusiastic and two countries signed six MoUs for cooperation in various fields including defence, health and medicine, arts and culture and tele-education and tele-medicine.
On that occasion India and Sierra Leone held delegation-level talks. Leaders of both the nations exchanged views on multilateral issues and decided to enhance the initiatives to give a forward push to the existing cooperation at UNSC and other multilateral fora. India and Sierra Leone signed six agreements to expand the bilateral relations in various fields and agreed to push for UNSC reforms. But what do all these mean for India? Vice President Naidu categorically stated this during his recent Africa tour. According to him, the 32 high-level interactions between India and the African nations during the last five years prove one point clearly that Africa has emerged as an important place for India’s strategic aspirations, diplomacy, trade and economy.
There seems some logic behind such assessment. But this particular tour of high level delegation of Indian leaders led by the Vice President is important because there is a clear signal from Indian side that New Delhi is serious about not a few but all the nations of the African continent. The reason here is very evident. Geo-strategic location of the African nations means a lot for India’s strategic aspirations. This is true that because of shared values and similar socio-economic status, African nations are natural allies of India. Strategic location of Comoros in particular is important for India in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR).
In fact, relationship with all the member States of Indian-Ocean Rim Association (IORA) always bears special significance for New Delhi. In that case, improving India’s relations with Comoros and giving it a strategic dimension through defence-deals and others can be an important step-forward to harness larger strategic space in the Indian Ocean Region and beyond. Sierra Leone is a nation where India enjoys a dominating status because of remarkable contribution of India both on civil and military fronts to stabilise the nation. Making Sierra Leone a viable strategic partner means a lot for India. All these indicate one important policy change on the part of New Delhi giving almost equal importance to Indo-Atlantic region as has been the case with Indo-Pacific. This can be termed as a major policy shift of New Delhi having many potentialities to deliver.
But harnessing the strategic interests in this region is not a cake-walk for India. Today’s situation depends more on existing power balance than tradition. So, there are obvious challenges for India. After all, this is the region mostly dominated by China for both strategic reasons and Beijing’s capability of investing and fulfilling the economic needs of almost the entire African continent. China has ensured its dominance because of its inherent strengths. Question is: can India compete with China to harness New Delhi’s Indo-Atlantic mission? This is the prime question and the given situation exposes that India cannot afford to engage in any such competition with China. This means, India must ponder about alternative policies. In this context, India’s relations both with Japan in the east and France in the west can be proved productive.
France enjoys a larger strategic leverage in the African continent. India has traditionally been a natural choice for the African nations. Japan is interested to make trade relations with Africa and multiply the existing figure. But for all these three nations; India, Japan and France; China is the most viable challenge. Recent trend shows that United States has also lost a considerable strategic space in the African region because of increasing Chinese dominance. Need of the hour is to frame greater co-operation among India, Japan, France, United States and some other countries of Europe to change the existing power structure in the African region. Similarly, India can play the role of a mediator between the countries like France and United States on the one hand and the African nations on the other for having common global aspiration like more representation in the UNSC from India and Africa.
Along with expanding India’s strategic presence in Indo-Atlantic region, this will provide more opportunity to both India and African nations to make the issue of restructuring the UN a serious endeavour. The momentum should go on. This will ultimately serve greater strategic interests of India and expanding New Delhi’s strategic hold far beyond the periphery. India-Africa relations have that potentiality and New Delhi traditionally enjoys an advantageous position in the region. Need is to extending focus and including Indo-Atlantic region in the strategic calculus of India with prominence. Visit of India’s Vice President to Comoros and Sierra Leone may be seen India-Africa relations emerging afresh; more significantly as Indo-Atlantic strategic partnership.
The writer is a Guwahati-based strategic affairs expert and author of two books