Strategic neglect of (East) Africa

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’ (pp. 175-178) in this book.

———-
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.

The over-arching 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.

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 – Understand[ing] local nuances and adapt[ing] 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. [To wit MEA Joint Secretary (Africa)’s views carried in today’s Hindustan Times but not featured anywhere in its online version]

About Bharat Karnad

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)'. Educated at the University of California (undergrad and grad), he was Visiting Scholar at Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, and Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, DC.
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7 Responses to Strategic neglect of (East) Africa

  1. Jay Joshi says:

    ‘Pivotal Relations’, it’s an interesting, as well as an aggravating Chapter; extremely disheartening to learn the opportunities we have missed since independence for no other reason than short term thinking and the lack of vision, of wit to take risks and to face challenges. We’ve a long way to go; the attitude of the Govt and citizens need altering.

    Your book ‘Why INDIA is not a Great Power [Yet]’ is a must read for every Indian who is educated.

  2. &^%$#@! says:

    The Indian MEA’s world view consists only of the US, the UK, and perhaps Canada, NZ, and Australia. Select parts of Western Europe might squeeze in. Any place that gives Green Cards, Citizenship’s, scholarships for prodigal offspring’s, bribes,…….and preferably English speaking. Africa cannot offer all of these and thus naturally doesn’t warrant the attention of the likes of Jaishankar & Co. If the results of a thorough investigation to identify MEA and other officials in key ministries and/or their spouses with foreign PR’s and Citizenship’s were publicly released, it would be most interesting/shocking.

  3. andy says:

    An article in today’s Asian Age starts with the following

    “India has dropped the option of leasing land to grow pulses in the southeast African nation of Mozambique on the grounds that it is a “politically sensitive issue”. India will instead sign an MoU with Mozambique for import of at least one lakh tonnes of pulses (arhar and tur dal) during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s forthcoming visit to that nation, but will ensure that the concerned Mozambique farmers are paid their minimum support prices, Amar Sinha, secretary (economic relations), the ministry of external affairs, said on Monday.”

    I think the above para says it all — GOI finds leasing of land overseas to grow pulses a politically sensitive issue,a decision that might help in bringing down the sky rocketing prices and help the poorest of the poor to have access to their dietary staple.I mean are these guys serious and here we are hoping against hope that GOI would build some overseas naval bases.

    • &^%$#@! says:

      I guess Modi and his learned advisers are afraid that leasing land in Mozambique would affect the UP elections, and even the next Lok Sabha elections. These guys are beneath contempt!

      • andy says:

        Seems to be the reason although its difficult to comprehend.

      • Shankar says:

        Beneath your contempt for the PM is your Modi phobia! By using insults for one person who is on path to do something for the country, you show where your loyalties lie. Do not vent your frustration and showcase your love for the real villains of this country!

      • Jay Joshi says:

        I disagree with your pessimism in this context. Nevertheless, in general, many of the decisions taken by any Govt have been influenced by Elections in the horizon. Recent rows on Reservation demands is a perfect example.

        However, I believe for a start GOI is entering into cooperative farming agreement with Mozambique. I am not thrilled with some of the decisions and policies of the present Govt but certainly isn’t a dead one too.

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