We have beheld in the ocean huge waves like mountains rising in the sky,” wrote Zheng He, Chinese admiral, diplomat and court eunuch, as his four-ship fleet traversed the Indian Ocean to East Africa in the early 1400s, “and we have set eyes on barbarian regions far away hidden in a blue transparency”. For 500 years after that journey, China stayed away from Africa’s eastern coast — only to return with a vengeance in the last two decades, in one of the world’s great races to corner natural resources and cash in on economic opportunity. Now, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s four-nation tour shows just how serious India is about making up for lost time. The last Indian Prime Minister who visited Mozambique was Indira Gandhi in 1982, in the midst of a civil war that only ended in 1992.
Even though Kenya has a large Indian diaspora, and vibrant business ties with India, it hasn’t had a prime minister visit since 1981. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh did visit Tanzania, also home to a large Indian community, in 2011 — but the last Indian PM to go there was I.K. Gujral, in 1997.
South Africa has received more attention, but even PM Singh never got around to making a stand-alone diplomatic visit there.
The stakes are enormous. Discoveries in Mozambique’s Rovuma Basin, for example, have the potential to make the country the third-largest exporter of natural gas in the world — a critical source of energy for India. ONGC Videsh and Oil India Ltd have invested nearly $ 5 billion to acquire 20 per cent in the Basin’s first block. In Kenya, Tanzania and South Africa’s growing economies, Indian private sector firms have made firm bases from which to expand their presence across the continent. Following on from large investments in Tanzania’s aviation industry, for example, the Tata group has unveiled earlier this year a $1.7 billion greenfield investment aimed at boosting automobile and hospitality businesses. Vedanta Resources, India’s largest mining company, recently reported that it had invested $ 4 billion over the past nine years in Africa’s mining sector. From pharmaceuticals to telecom, the Indian presence in Africa is steadily growing.
In terms of sheer scale, India has still got a long way to go to make up for the ground ceded to its eastern superpower rival: In 2014, China’s trade with Africa was at $200 billion, while trade between India and Africa was at $ 70 billion. Yet, the series of Africa-India summits hosted in New Delhi over recent years have signaled a long-term commitment. President Pranab Mukherjee, too, visited Ghana, Namibia, and the Ivory Coast in mid-June, while Vice-President Hamid Ansari travelled to Morocco and Tunisia. Ensuring Indian businesses get the backup they need to compete with their Chinese counterparts will be essential to turning this diplomatic momentum into tangible gains.