India-Africa Forum Summit: A new twist to Modi’s foreign policy?

India’s trade with Africa has increased from $39 billion in 2009-10 to $71.4 billion in 2014-15, with the surge in exports. On the other hand, China’s trade with Africa stands at over $200 billion

With the upcoming 3rd India-Africa Forum Summit (IAFS-III) this month, Narendra Modi is set to prove a point to the country that he indeed follows a proactive foreign policy with exuberance and austerity. With the Modi government in power, IAFS-III seems to be critical for reshaping and nourishing historical India-Africa ties and is considered as not just another diplomatic event.

IAFS-III will be held at the Indira Gandhi Stadium in New Delhi which has been turned into a convention centre for the event from October 26-29. This year’s summit is set to mark a departure from IAFS-I (2008) and IAFS-II (2011) held under the regime of the Congress-led UPA, for two very prominent reasons. One, the previous two summits were a low-key affair where roughly 14-15 members were invited as per the Banjul formula applied by the African Union (AU), whereas IAFS-III reflects the vehemence of the central government where all the 54 heads of states have been invited, of which 51 have already confirmed. The second important departure of the Modi government from the Congress is that, in IAFS-III, Modi will make an effort to deal with core global issues such as climate change, information technology, education, healthcare, skill development, economy, terrorism, etc, that affect both India and Africa. Singapore and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have also been invited as special observers for the summit.

According to the official IAFS website, the summit will “enable consultations at the highest political level between the heads of government of 54 nations across Africa, and the Indian government to give a new thrust to our age-old partnership. It provides an opportunity to not only reflect on the past, but also to define the road ahead in tune with the times we live in.”

So, is India’s engagement with Africa a diplomatic step or a China-factor?

Modi has always maintained his foreign policy to be interlinked with the economy. In IAFS-III, he focuses to ensure African investments in India following his ‘Make in India’ campaign. Moreover, the summit is seen as an opportunity to boost new trade relations with Africa, and to clamp its long-pending trade agreements with African countries.

India also engages with various groupings in Africa for preferential trade agreements, such as the Southern African Customs Union (SACU), the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA). Both the regions in June signed a tripartite free trade agreement (TFTA) to boost their economic relationship. India has also extended duty-free and quota-free facility to the Least Developed Countries (LDCs) that is set to benefit 21 African countries. In the upcoming Nairobi ministerial meet of WTO members, India will lay down the framework to provide preferential treatment of services in trade to LDCs, which, if approved, with benefit major African countries and will redefine India’s engagement with Africa.

India has been considered as an important trading partner of Africa, after China. India’s trade with Africa has increased from $39 billion in 2009-10 to $71.4 billion in 2014-15, with the surge in exports than imports. On the other hand, China’s trade with Africa is seen at over $200 billion, overpowering the US, and with investment stocks in Africa of up to $30 billion. Apart from this, both India and Africa have made an effort to engage at various levels.

India has made $7 billion soft loan available to Africa. It has pledged $8.5 billion in Lines of Credit for different developmental projects in Africa; also, vocational training centres have been set up in Ethiopia, Burundi and Rwanda to strengthen the partnership between the two countries and capacity building, which is seen as another major area of cooperation between the two countries.

According to the report carried out by the Chinese news agency Xinhua, both China and South Africa have decided to upgrade the sixth ministerial meeting of the Forum of China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) to a summit—a meeting will be held in December this year on this issue. It is believed that India is trying to set its foot in Africa in spite of substantial competition from China and the US. The only way India can slowly establish itself in Africa—a resource-rich continent—is by getting to interact with the local population, spreading the Indian diaspora in Africa and vice-versa, conducting more people-to-people interactions at the diplomatic level, educational exchanges, breaking down the stereotypes related to poverty and deprivation and, most importantly, eliminating racism that exist deeply in Indian societies for dark-skinned people.

IAFS-III is one the biggest events being held under Modi and, through this, it would be interesting to analyse which direction Modi’s foreign policy is finally taking.

The author is a Delhi-based researcher with the Observer Research Foundation, a public policy think tank

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First published on: 19-10-2015 at 00:18 IST