Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and South African President Thabo Mbeki sat down on Monday for their first substantive talks since they met a few weeks ago, first in Brasilia to forge a new emerging-economy initiative, the IBSA (India-Brazil-South Africa), and then in Havana at the Non-Aligned summit.
The two leaders are expected to sign cooperation agreements on railways, education and science and technology. But top of the agenda will be an attempt to forge a new strategic relationship.
Singh and Mbeki have spent the weekend celebrating the "umbilical cord" of Gandhian values that links their countries. But Monday's talks, which coincide with Mahatma Gandhi's 137th birth anniversary, will underline a new awareness of one another's strategic importance.
A senior Indian official, speaking on condition he not be identified, told the Hindustan Times that Pretoria's perception of New Delhi's attitude has distinctly warmed after India chose to plump for South Africa as its choice for an African seat on the UN Security Council in preference to the two other candidates, Nigeria and Egypt.
The official also noted that South Africa and India are both Indian Ocean powers with large navies. Military cooperation was very much on the cards at the talks the two leaders held on Monday morning in Pretoria.
South African officials are also apparently becoming conscious that their country is becoming a favourite rest-and-recreation post for terrorist groups, which might also be setting up sleeper cells in the republic. "South African intelligence will now be keeping a much closer eye on all comings and goings, and share this intelligence with India," the Indian official said.
India is already a major buyer of South African arms. The other delicate issue that Singh and Mbeki will discuss — and on which Indian officials do not expect a huge breakthrough on this trip — is Pretoria's position as one of the leading members of the Nuclear Suppliers Group. South Africa controls about 10 per cent of the world's uranium supplies and has taken a firm anti-proliferation stand, but Indian officials say its possible supply of nuclear fuel to India may not present as much of a hurdle as Australia, which has repeatedly stressed it will not unbend on its anti-proliferation stand on uranium sales.
A free trade agreement is also on the cards. CEOs from the two countries are holding separate talks in Pretoria. Ratan Tata, who heads the Indian CEO delegation, is also an adviser to Mbeki. Indian companies are expanding their presence in South Africa, and IT firms have led the way in establishing a foothold in the republic.
"All this is only a fraction of the potential that exists between India and South Africa," Shashi Tripathi, Secretary (West) in the foreign ministry told reporters a few days ago. She noted that South Africa is at the cutting edge of fuel technology, in the conversion of coal to gas, for instance.
Bilateral trade totals about $4 billion now and Indian officials are optimistic this will rise dramatically as the two countries cement their relationship.