India's Africa outreach aimed at keeping China at bay

By Mahua Venkatesh

New Delhi, Jul 6 (IANS): Ministry of External Affairs secretary (Economic Relations) Rahul Chhabras recent visit to Ghanas capital Accra failed to grab headlines. Foreign policy watchers, however, said with India looking to ink a comprehensive deal with the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), Chhabras visit to Accra is of "immense importance" especially as the secretariat is headquartered there.

While many Indian companies are already operating in Africa, several others are firming up plans. The AfCFTA provides a window to the Indian companies to tap a unified African market.

"The Republic of Ghana is the headquarter of the AfCFTA and can serve as a gateway to the 1.2 billion-strong African population having a combined GDP of $3.4 trillion," Michael Aaron N. N. Oquaye Esq High Commissioner, The High Commission of the Republic of Ghana in India said last year at the India-Ghana Trade & Investment Opportunities Virtual Summit.

In fact, the back-to-back visits to Africa by senior government officials – in June External Affairs minister S Jaishankar was in Kenya—is a reflection that India has pressed the pedal on efforts to strengthen ties with the countries after engagements were derailed due to the Covid 19 pandemic.

"Since Accra is where the AfCFTA secretariat is based, Chhabra's visit holds immense importance for India. The fact that senior government officials are heading to African countries amid Covid 19 pandemic and before undertaking any other visits to other parts of the world signifies India's renewed focus to engage with the continent and enhance business and trade," Pradeep S Mehta, Secretary General, CUTS International told India Narrative.

While currently, China is Ghana's biggest trading partner and source of foreign investment, the African countries are keen on deepening economic ties with India due to the cultural commonalities. The African nation also features among the first 10 countries with high Chinese debt.

According to All Africa, a website aggregating news on the continent, Ghana's debt to China is estimated at $3.5 billion.

Besides, Ghana, countries such as Angola, Ethiopia, Kenya, Sudan, Congo, Zambia, Cameroon, Nigeria too are saddled with a high level of debt from China.

While Mehta said that though Covid 19 is set to impact the African economy trade will continue among the countries. "India must try and work out a mechanism with the AfCFTA to ensure it has access to the continent. This makes more sense rather than going individually country by country," Mehta added.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, soon after he assumed office in 2014, outlined his Africa strategy. In 2015, a mega India Africa summit was held in New Delhi, which was attended by 54 nations. Modi said that Africa will remain at the centre of India's attention.

"We will work with you to realize your vision of a prosperous Africa, based on inclusive growth, empowered citizens and sustainable development; an integrated and culturally vibrant Africa; and, a peaceful and secure Africa, which has its rightful global place and is a strong partner for the world," he said in his address.

Touted as the biggest trade deals in the world since the World Trade Organisation, the AfCTA signed between 55 countries, of which 54 are members of the African Union, aims to create a single market comprising 1.3 billion people with a combined GDP of about $3.4 trillion.

India is now Africa's third largest trading partner.

The Observer Research Foundation said that it is critical for India to view Africa not just as a destination for short-term returns but as a partner for medium and long-term economic growth.

At a time when China has slowed its investments into the continent, India has an opportunity. The continent will also play an important role as the geopolitical thrust shifts towards the Indo Pacific.


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