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Terms of engagement

There is no doubt that economic relations can improve manifold if the long shadow of China can exorcised, writes N Chandra Mohan.
Hindustan Times | By N Chandra Mohan
UPDATED ON APR 09, 2008 12:53 AM IST

There are good reasons to expect that the first-ever India-Africa Forum Summit will set the terms for a closer economic engagement between the 2 billion people of India and Africa.

For starters, this meeting takes place at a time when Africa and India need each other more than ever before. In his opening address, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said: “The time has come to create a new architecture for our engagement in the 21st century.”

From an economic standpoint, what could be the important elements of this engagement?

There is no doubt that economic relations can improve manifold if the long shadow of China can exorcised. Foreign Office mandarins bristle at the suggestion that this summit represents an effort at catching up with the much bigger Africa Summit that China organised in 2006. They probably also demur the fact that India has, in a typical ‘too little, too late’ fashion, suddenly discovered Africa and is making amends through the promise of capacity-building, more aid and duty free access to its market.

China’s shadow is the longest over the question of energy security, an area that has seen Beijing and New Delhi scramble for sources of oil supply in Africa, for their rapidly growing economies. But this is where India has lost out heavily to Chinese oil giants.

Given this track record, there is a warrant for going beyond a ‘China catch-up’. The perception that our interests in Africa are identical — notably, to only secure access to its vast raw materials and resources — must be dispelled. India has one advantage over China in terms of its vibrant and fast-globalising private sector, spearheaded by the likes of Tata Motors, Bajaj Auto and Ranbaxy. This really is the trump card that India must play to forge a new partnership with Africa.

This partnership must ensure that our investments propel African trade into cutting-edge global networks that alter the international division of labour, as argued by Harry Broadman in his book Africa’s Silk Road: China and India’s New Economic Frontier.

A more forward-looking strategy could be the diamonds business. Instead of importing only roughs, India must enable African nations like Namibia to participate in global supply chains through investments in higher value-added diamond finishing in Africa itself.

To engage Africa, the need for a strategy that deals with each country separately is imperative. “Africa is far from monolithic,” explained Honorary Consul of Guinea Bissau, Satyasheel.

In the architecture of the India-Africa partnership, New Delhi’s must tailor-make strategies for each country, setting aside, of course, the shadow of the Chinese dragon.

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