Saturday, May 28, 2011

India in Africa Playing catch up

Long timid in international affairs, India is starting to make waves

FOR all its elephantine weight, India has long shown mouselike diplomatic clout. Historically, its diplomacy was constrained by poverty at home, fraught relations with neighbours, notably Pakistan and China, and an anxiety to avoid taking sides in the cold war. Even today, its foreign service remains woefully understaffed: both New Zealand and Singapore have more serving diplomats. Now India is trying harder to get noticed.

About time. India’s growing economy and population need far more energy than can easily be produced at home, requiring eyes to be raised to distant horizons. Already the world’s fourth-biggest oil consumer, within 15 years India will import nearly all its oil. India is set on diversifying supply away from the Middle East.

Increasingly, it expects to get supplies from Central Asia and Africa.

As it happens, India’s prime minister, Manmohan Singh, has just spent six days in Africa, along with hordes of Indian ministers and businessmen. An Afro-India summit, the second in three years, with leaders of 15 African countries, produced a surge of shared goodwill. Mr Singh had admirable deeds to point to. India is the third-biggest contributor of UN peacekeepers to the continent, helping clamp down on civil wars in Sudan and Congo. India’s navy chases Somali pirates. And, the prime minister reminded listeners, India’s record of speaking out against apartheid in South Africa was an honourable one.

More striking, Mr Singh promised $5 billion of loans on easy terms over the next three years for Africans willing to trade with India, plus another $1 billion to pay for education, railways and peacekeeping. It is a steep rise in aid and assistance—last year India gave a mere $25m to Africa—and marks a striking shift, especially since India itself is still a big recipient of aid. But Mr Singh wants something in return: African backing for another round of long-stalled efforts to reform the UN Security Council. India craves a permanent seat, and will back an African permanent one, too, probably for South Africa.

Booming two-way trade, likely to pass $50 billion this year, is the backdrop to all this goodwill. Oil exports account for much of the trade, thanks in part to a rash of investments by Indian oil firms in eight producing countries. Minerals matter too. India’s large jewellery industry gobbles up South African diamonds and gold. Mozambique’s coal fuels power stations. India wants uranium from Malawi and Niger for nuclear power.

Mr Singh talks cheerily of all this helping Africa to prosper. For now, however, rival China plays the bigger role. The value of its trade is three times India’s. Whereas China’s African embassies are large and well staffed, the handful of Indian diplomats in Mozambique struggle to speak Portuguese. Bids by Chinese state-owned firms for African oil concessions routinely knock Indian ones aside. It helps that Chinese-built infrastructure projects have already charmed governments.

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