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The Strategic Neglect of East Africa

India has failed to convert the enormous goodwill, even by official accounts, into a tangible economic and strategic advantage.

By Bharat Karnad

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is visiting South Africa and countries on the East African littoral starting July 7. He will specifically be in South Africa, Mozambique and Tanzania — three states of immense strategic interest to India, whose neglect by MEA has cost India plenty, and which I have analyzed in my recent book — ‘Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)’.Because what I have written remains relevant, I am reproducing below with small modifications a small extract from the third chapter on ‘Pivotal Relations’ in this book.

The overarching reason though for the less than expected returns from a potentially promising position in Africa, for instance, is the seeming disinterest of MEA to utilize India’s hard power to win diplomatic points and capitalize on the enormous goodwill for India.

Not many are convinced that the Indian government has done enough to cash in on opportunities and to capitalize on the half-chances to establish India’s credentials as a coming power. It hasn’t taken up invitations, for example, to Indian farmers from Punjab by countries with surplus land and small populations, such as Mozambique and Angola in Africa. Further, smaller alliance or partnership systems, such as the India-Brazil-South Africa (IBSA) combine, have been neglected with New Delhi sticking, as Yashwant Sinha, External Affairs Minister in the Vajpayee government, said with ‘large and unwieldy’ groupings like the Non-aligned Movement, G-77, and G-15 or leaving ‘things to one super power, which will call all the shots.’

The fact, however, is that despite playing to its traditional strengths, fielding some imaginative programs, and racking up considerable foreign policy successes in Africa and Central Asia, where Indian assistance programs focused on capacity building in the countries, cemented an Indian presence in the local economies, and in the extractive industrial sector, India has failed to convert the enormous goodwill, even by official accounts, into a tangible economic and strategic advantage.

The absence of a comprehensive national vision compounds the problem of weaving the various successful regional policy strands into a single fabric of grand strategy to serve the country’s great power interests and ambition.

The failure is also because of the extreme compartmentalization or silo-based thinking and policy-making within and between the Ministries in the Indian government [which Modi, in interviews published in several of today’s newspapers, insists is a thing of the past, but in reality continues]. It leads to foreign policies in discrete streams that do not spring from the same fount and run separately, usually ending in uncoordinated, stand-alone, policies.

Improved relations with East Africa will allow the Indian Government to extract mineral riches at concessional rates

Improved relations with East Africa will allow the Indian Government to extract mineral riches at concessional rates | Photo Courtesy: Visual Hunt

The overarching reason though for the less than expected returns from a potentially promising position in Africa, for instance, is the seeming disinterest of MEA to utilize India’s hard power to win diplomatic points and capitalize on the enormous goodwill for India, which can be easily translated into concessions for extracting mineral riches and, in the security sector, for help to train their militaries. Locked into big power-centered foreign policy relating to the United States, Western Europe, and China, MEA has not found the time for African countries and the opportunities they provide.

The overarching reason though for the less than expected returns from a potentially promising position in Africa, for instance, is the seeming disinterest of MEA to utilize India’s hard power to win diplomatic points and capitalize on the enormous goodwill for India.

Thus, the longstanding request by Mozambique to establish a navy and to equip it, initially with coastal policing vessels and surveillance gear has been ignored.Some years back both Mozambique and Tanzania offered India concessions to mine one of the richest veins of coal in East Africa on the condition that a 600 km railway line be constructed from that site to the coast. The problem was the senior MEA official responsible for the decision spurned the invitation conveyed to him by the Indian ambassador saying that that region was ‘not on our radar’.

Worse, Indian diplomats affect superciliousness with regard to African governments, notwithstanding some $10 billion in Indian government-to-government aid for infrastructure and development projects since 2008.

The private sector has been more successful in its forays in Africa. Relative to the 14 percent decline in European trade with Africa, the India-Africa trade has doubled to 6 percent in 2000-2013, with the two-way trade standing at $93 billion behind only China ($211 billion) and North America ($117 billion).

Major investments by Indian companies are expected to soon capture 7 percent of the IT, 5 percent of the fast-moving consumer goods, 10 percent of the power, and 2-5 percent of the agricultural services sectors.

A McKinsey Report lists various reasons for this success, among them, investing in local talent, partnering local governments, involving local insiders as partners, and going ‘granular – Understanding local nuances and adapting business models accordingly, with 55 different countries, each with its own culture, customs and behaviours. It has helped the Indian commercial presence become part of every-day African scene. In contrast, Chinese companies have not been inclined to accommodate African complexities, have remained insular, and not earned goodwill.

Modi has expressed the view that Indian diplomats should primarily be promoting India’s economic interests abroad, which will also be his policy thrust during his African tour. Except, neither he nor his government has ever talked, leave alone emphasized, the strategic importance of cultivating South Africa and the states in the East African littoral with arms exports and military infrastructure assistance, and with the placement of army, naval and air force training missions, such as in Bhutan, in these friendly countries. It will bind their national interests to that of India as little else can to the same degree. Indian defence presence and security cooperation programmes in South Africa and East Africa should be the show-piece of India’s military diplomacy in the southern reaches of the Indian Ocean. It is a means of freezing not just China but also the US and other big powers out of these contested strategic-military spaces in Africa.

The problem is GOI/PMO/MEA, on the eve of the PM’s visit, remain unappreciative of the benefits and strategic advantages from making military-to-military links and security cooperation projects the cutting edge of Indian foreign policy in Africa.


Bharat Karnad is a senior fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, he was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, ‘Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy’, ‘India’s Nuclear Policy’ and most recently, ‘Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)’.

This article was originally published on Bharat Karnad’s blog

Featured Image Source:  By Joao Silas via Unsplash