Zanzibar - dhow caught in the late afternoon light 

The Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh will be arriving in Tanzania today . This visit , part of a six day trip in which he has attended the Indo-African summit too, is seen primarily in the context of India’s outreach to African nations. However, rather than carrying out the business and strategic dialogue between India and the East African countries under a general Indo-African dialogue, Indian interests could be served better by  reviving and strengthening the ancient trade and strategic links that once pervaded the Indian Ocean.

Unlike the Atlantic or the Pacific, Indian Ocean has been less of a barrier than a uniting force. It was a shared space , an arena for three way interaction between the Indian , East African and South East Asian cultures. The regularity and convenience of monsoon winds not only aided in navigation, but also helped bring about a diffusion of languages, cultures, people and ideas through out the vast Indian Ocean region. These ancient links had endured for centuries, until the arrival of first the Portuguese and then the English all but decimated them. As the major powers such as India, Indonesia, Oman , Kenya, came under foreign rule , the links between these countries were also severed. The economic decline of these major powers also led to a decline in the intraregional trade in the Indian Ocean community.

The situation is very different now. The major powers of the Indian Ocean region viz India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Oman, Bangladesh, Kenya, Tanzania are all economies which are growing at a scorching rate. Not only is their trade with the developed world growing, the south-south trade is also booming.  They have also increasingly begin to share the same security and strategic concerns , be it the prevailing piracy near the Horn of Africa and the associated problem of the failed state of Somalia,  the security of vital sea lanes or the rising Chinese influence. These cultures also , and very importantly , mostly speak the same language : English and are by and large democratic, secular nations.

India has a central role to play in this community. As the pre-eminent naval power in the region , and also the largest economy , it is India’s responsibility to lay the foundations for a strong economic as well as strategic partnership with the Indian Ocean rim states. Not only would it make eminent economic sense, but also provide India with a framework to protect its interest in the Indian Ocean which it considers its backyard.

India has already made some progress in this direction.Much of it has however been in the characteristically lackluster and lethargic way which has been a hallmark of Indian foreign policy. The Indian Ocean Rim-Association for Regional Cooperation has been dead for years now though lately there has been some talk about reviving it. The Indian navy is slowly expanding its capabilities as a blue water force but much of its focus has been directed towards the East Asian region. Indian naval engagement with East Africa has thus far only consisted of some basing agreements with Madagascar, a multi lateral naval exercise with South Africa and Brazil , and some flag showing visits by the ships. The navy should redouble its efforts to effectively project power on the East African coast , particularly so in the context of the rising threat of piracy . The various multilateral events like the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium should also be further expanded in scope. But above all , what is needed is a strong will and a genuine desire from New Delhi to shed its usual ambiguity in foreign policy and closely integrate with other stake holders in a close knit economic and security framework.

It is inevitable that in the twenty first century , the Indian Ocean will eclipse  both the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans  and retake its place in the history as the most important trading and strategic region in the planet. The question is whether the Indian leadership has the vision and the energy to reestablish India as the preeminent power in the region.

These days Indian Institute of Foreign Trade(IIFT) , the business school from which I have recently graduated, is all abuzz about a new assignment from the Prime Ministers Office. IIFT has been tasked with setting up a new school of foreign trade in Africa to train professionals in international business management. As India and Africa inaugurate the second Indo-African summit , this initiative is a very good example of the way in which India and Africa can partner to achieve mutual prosperity and security in the 21st century.

It is now almost universally agreed that Africa would be a very important economic region in the 21st century.  It will not only be a supplier of crucial raw materials , but would also be a big and flourishing market in itself. Its combined GDP is now more than that of India and is expected to grow fast . The worlds leading economic powers are vying with each other to secure crucial supplies as well as to corner a slice of the consumer market. Mirroring the changing world geopolitical scenario, the strategic and economic influence of India and China is increasing in Africa at the expense of Western nations. At the same time the competition between India and China is increasing. Although , not a neo-colonial scramble for Africa , this rivalry is real and is  bound to intensify in the coming decades. India needs to stand up and fight for its interests in Africa , albeit with different tools.

Most of the Chinese engagement in Africa usually consists of  heavy investment  in physical infrastructure with a view of securing access to natural resources. A majority of these deals are financed by the Chinese Export Import Bank and are usually executed by Chinese contractors. The projects are executed by Chinese managers using Chinese instruments and Chinese labor. Some labor gangs are even reported to bring their own prostitutes from China. Although ensuring efficiency, this model increasingly alienates the Chinese businesses from the local population and have little trickle down effect . To a population which is very sensitive about colonial exploitation, this high handedness is slowly adding to public resentment which might one day explode.

India cannot and should  not emulate this. India must carefully position itself as a partner to Africa in growth. Our focus should not be on investing in physical infrastructure as much as on the social infrastructure.Rather than being state sponsored, Indian engagement with Africa should be led by private sector. Robust people to people ties should be built and encouraged.  Indian businesses should be encouraged to invest into those sectors which are most crucial to African growth, such as water, agriculture productivity, medicine , education. Indian businesses should also provide as much employment as possible to the local people, even if that means investing heavily into training employees.

And all this should be done not because it is nice to say and do , but because it makes ample business sense. This is the 21st century , and todays Africa will never accept any colonial master. As its people become more educated , and more aware , they are more likely to share their wealth with a friend than an oppressor. We need to extend them a firm hand of friendship with a clear heart and conscience.