India to boost ties with Africa at summit

India-Africa Summit will touch on trade and development; Singapore is special invitee

Looking to ramp up its economic and political ties with Africa, where it has trailed China, India will host the biggest edition yet of the India-Africa Summit this month - and is reaching out to Singapore with a special invitation to attend.

Maritime security, ways of increasing trade, development, energy, United Nations Security Council reforms and climate change are all expected to be discussed with leaders of at least three dozen African nations at the 3rd India-Africa forum from Oct 26 to 29.

The summit, for the first time, is also being linked to South-east Asia through Singapore, which has hosted business forums with African nations since 2010. It was postponed from December last year because of the Ebola scare.

Mr Vikas Swarup, spokesman for the Ministry of External Affairs, said this was the first time India has invited all 54 African heads.

"The India-Africa Summit reflects the priority India attaches to ties with Africa," he said. "We can jointly explore new opportunities that African economic renaissance and Indian economic progress offer."

India has historical links with Africa, where Mahatma Gandhi worked as an attorney before returning to India to fight British rule. Since then, it has focused on soft power in Africa, launching training programmes, giving scholarships and starting an IT initiative to connect all African Union states and India by satellite and a fibre optic network.

In 2008, former premier Manmohan Singh launched the first summit-level meeting. But it is seen to have lagged behind China, which has pushed investment in key infrastructure projects from highways, railways, public transport to airports, and steadily increased economic ties with bilateral trade at US$200 billion (S$275 billion).

Though India cannot hope to match China's deep pockets, experts said, the summit is an opportunity for India to focus more on Africa, where Japan and the US have also been disconcerted by China's growing investments.

"The main focus is basically to rejuvenate the partnership. We (India) need to prioritise some sectors where we can really deliver and make an impact... and in terms of implementation, take a reality check on how much it can deliver and how fast it can deliver," said Ms Ruchita Beri, senior research associate at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses.

India is also turning more to resource-rich African nations, which already contribute 16 per cent of India's crude oil, to diversify its energy basket into gas and coal too.

Still, others see the inclusion of Singapore in the summit as part of the Indian government's extended diplomacy surrounding the Indian Ocean Rim Association, a grouping that includes Singapore and a handful of African countries.

The invitation to Singapore also comes ahead of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's visit to Singapore next month. The only other special invitee is the United Arab Emirates.

"Inviting Singapore makes sense partly because these are Indian Ocean Rim Association countries... it also sends a signal of inclusiveness in a multilateral forum," said Professor Srikanth Kondapalli of Jawaharlal Nehru University.

He also noted that the summit comes at a time when the Chinese economy was slowing down, while India has been largely insulated from the turmoil in emerging markets.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 17, 2015, with the headline 'India to boost ties with Africa at summit'. Print Edition | Subscribe