By Ms. Cauvery Ganapathy

A considerable amount of contemporary International Relations literature, concerns itself with deciphering the meanings and implications of Chinese foreign policy. Why China chose to hold a summit with Africa, a continent not apparently, a demand generating entity? Why the Chinese Premier decided on a stopover at a seemingly innocuous island, like Seychelles, with an unexciting international profile? Why conflict ridden neighbourhoods evoke diplomatic overtures from Beijing? What makes China capable of formulating an international persona that is at once that of a responsive participant --- active or passive --- in the International order, while at the same time amounting to an aggressive investing consortium?

To consider China’s first area of focus --- Africa : China’s interest in African dates back to the days of the Cold war, when economically challenged or politically and socially unstable countries, presented opportunities for expanding bloc affiliations. It is therefore a relationship whose origin precedes the Oil Shock of the 70s and by extension, the start of the energy security discourse. It would hence be fair to imply that, much before the world woke up to Africa’s potential to be counted as more than just a Development aid statistic, China had already consolidated her presence in the continent. And it is by that logic that one would contend that China’s access to the hydrocarbon resources of Africa is not the result of any stupendous Chinese prowess in the competition for scarce resources --- it is instead, simply an expected outcome of the fact that when China made its first foray, no other country saw Africa as a worthy ground for competition.

Absence of foresight and the inability to take risks for fulfilling calculated visions are the two cardinal flaws that plague both, diplomacy and policy making. Europe, having a natural affiliation to Africa, given its geographical proximity and colonial ties, never attempted to engage with the continent beyond the role of an aid provider post its role as a colonial exploiter. The idea was much the same with the US. India, on her part, also twiddled away what could have been the chance for a mutually beneficial relationship. As a former colonial dominion, and then as the champion of the non-aligned world order, India was poised without parallel to cultivate Africa --- both, to their benefit, as well as India’s own. The chance however, was not taken and despite the play remaining the same, in all reasonableness, the act has changed.

The story pertaining to Central Asia doesn’t diverge significantly from the African case. India shares a cultural and geographical proximity that should naturally have translated into a close partnership in multiple areas of national development. Yet, a variety of issues disallowed the same --- absence of transport corridors more suited to trade; the tepid steps mandated, lest Russia misinterpret an attempt to cultivate her own sphere of influence; and a most simple of reasons, namely just an overlooking of the region as perhaps an area that would require an investment that would not --- at least, immediately --- be commensurate to the returns generated. Ceremonial and symbolic articulations of this relationship, have been plentiful--- several Heads of Central Asian states have often presided over India’s Republic Day celebrations; Central Asia’s cultural peculiarities have been celebrated as exotic in India; developmental aid has commonly been forthcoming from India. Yet, it is a well grounded business alliance that has not really been facilitated.

Returns equaling, much less exceeding, investments makes for a sound economic precept --- yet, how conducive it is for a foray into areas virgin to investment, is perhaps a more debatable concern. Central Asia is a valuable asset to its neighbourhood in that, the hydro-carbon rich region is a strategic flashpoint too. It functions as a very effective demarcation between Asia and Europe. That apart, socially, culturally and historically, it tantamounts to a veritable cross-section of the Islamic world, the former Soviet states, and a more secular, but sufficiently expressive, image of Middle Eastern conditionalities. Hence, no parameters could actually justify a sidestepping of the region.

India could share its technical prowess in a wide array of disciplines, with the Central Asian Republics. Education, the medical sciences and information technology qualify as the most crucial exports that India could offer to Central Asia. The region on the other hand could, apart from its traditional exports and rich hydrocarbon reserves, also aid the Indian cause by sharing its expertise in areas like cultivation of arid lands, water management and the generation of economical hydel power projects.

The absence of an agreeable transport corridor has been posited as one of the reasons why India has not been able to optimise its profile in Central Asia. Yet, it belittles any understanding of foreign relations to believe that the absence of traditional transport corridors is a reason good enough to not cultivate better ties in today’s day and age.

India has in all probability lost the chance --- and in all certainty, the race --- to enhance its chances in Africa. But the conjoin of history may still argue India’s case in Central Asia. Not all is negative in a competitor. Beijing’s policies may not always excite emulation, but in its African and Central Asian experience it certainly does. The suggestion is not to support the perpetuation of undemocratic or brute regimes in resource rich countries; but that can be India’s own paradigmatic shift from the Chinese prescription. There most definitely are countries in these two regions that could be engaged with, while abiding by the ethos of democracy and humanitarian governance.

At yet another level, the economies of Africa and Latin America have never grown as fast as they have today with Chinese involvement. In all likelihood, this trajectory would perhaps finally bear the trickle-down effect that the aid philosophy seems to so obviously have disappointed.

Akin to the economic trickle-down that China seems to have aided in some measure, India could perhaps, by a more pro-active policy engagement in the two regions, also --- not entirely, inadvertently --- help the cause of a more vibrant political and democratic ethos in Africa and Central Asia. The cause of energy security and strategic concerns no doubt is the starting point of the suggested involvement in Africa and Central Asia, yet realpolitik has never really been oblivious to the spread of democratic principles as a by-product --- and therein, would lie the novelty of the Indian endeavour.


1. "The New Colonialists," The Economist, London, Vol. 386, Number 8571, March 15, 2008, p. 13.