India - International Relations
India’s eternal southern identity
Constantino Xavier argues that if India succeeds as a leading southern power, it will necessarily be a more interventive and globally integrated India, guaranteeing the peaceful and liberal character of the world order. From Washington, DC.
India has been ambitioning to become a great power for a long time. But first the Cold War, and now the North American unipolar hegemony, have forced New Delhi to freeze this objective and develop alternative forms of leadership beyond South Asia and pure power politics.
The post-1991 confluence of three factors – a past of very close cultural relations with Africa, a revisionist vision of international politics, and new economic priorities – has therefore redirected Indian interests to the Southern Hemisphere, in particular to South America and Africa. This is India’s new global hunting ground.
If until the 1990s, India’s Southern inclination tended to be limited to rhetoric and wishful thinking, there are now concrete signs that governments in Delhi are looking to consolidate on the ground its ambition to lead the “voice of the South”.
Caipirinha and tango in New Delhi
It is impossible to speak of India and Latin America without referring to R. Viswanathan
, India’s current ambassador Buenos Aires. While in Delhi, I remember listening to his animated speeches on India-Latin America relations, which always began with a cultural reference (in absolutely fluent Portuguese or Spanish) - sometimes a poem from Vargas Llosa, other times some verses of a carioca
music from Rio.
At that time, Viswanathan managed the Latin America and Caribbean division of the Ministry of External Affairs. The interesting thing is that his style did not only find great success with the visiting South American delegations sitting in the audience.
It was the Indian
audience’s reaction which was striking: Indian businessmen, artists, students or politicians - whatever their identity or specific interest, the result was always the same, all appearing hypnotized, surrended to America Latina
and the immense Sul
. What explains this southern calling in India?
The historical past as an advantage
It is in India’s geography and history that we find a first answer. Though a part of the Asian continent of the Northern hemisphere today, the historical origins of the Indian sub-continent lie in the African tectonic block, from which it separated more than fifty million years ago.
The present geography of the Indian sub-continent, open and exposed towards the South and relatively closed by the Himalayan mountain chain towards the North, reflects this geological origin. This is also why, already in the mediaeval times, the gross of India’s external relations was done by sea, especially with the Middle East and Eastern Africa. The Portuguese colonial domination in India, much before Dutch and British appeared on the scene, further accentuated this Southern preponderance in India’s relations by establishing a triangular exchange of numerous goods, people and ideas between India, Africa and Brazil.
The Portuguese colonial domination in India further accentuated this Southern preponderance in India’s relations.
These historical relations gained a more significant political importance in the 20th century. Gandhi’s movement against the British Raj
started precisely in South Africa and the independence of India in 1947 profoundly inspired the emergent African anti-colonial movements. And it was no coincidence that India chose Brazil as its diplomatic mediator for the conflict opposing it to Portugal over Goa, Daman and Diu after 1961 – Nehru shared a secret passion for this other “third world giant” which he identified as a potential ally in the resistance against “Northern imperialism”.
It was around these elements that India crystallized its Southern identity during the Cold War. Constrained to its North by the imposing Soviet Union and prevented from influencing the great strategic games of the period, the anti-colonial movements of the Southern Hemisphere offered Nehru the ideal scenario to project his idealism and rhetoric in favor of a new, more just and democratic world order.
If at the moral level India presented itself as a source of political inspiration, in reality its influence in Africa and Latin America was however very limited - even China managed to be more influential with its Maoist ideology and military support. The “solidarity” thus did not go beyond an occasional alignment of interest, as for example in the Afro-Asian block in the United Nations until the 1960s. In practice, India’s Southern identity was restricted to the largely inconsequent field of ideas and morality.
Realizing the utopia
After the 1990s however, and very much due to its new economic and energetic needs, India started to make a consolidated effort to realize this historical ambition, redirecting its diplomatic priorities southwards. This new agenda included three fronts.
First, on the economic level, New Delhi accelerated its relations with the key resource and energy-rich countries such as Nigeria, Angola, Venezuela and Brazil. India’s public oil, gas, coal and steel companies went on to invest heavily in these economies (see the case of Mozambique), and the Indian government also went on to encourage exports to Latin America and Africa, seen as the new priority markets, by signing dozens of bilateral agreements for trade and preferential investment and its ExIm bank by opening new credit lines.
The result was impressive: over a short decade, the volume of business with Latin America grew fivefold, reaching more than US$ 5 billion in 2005-2006 with a growingly positive balance for India. In the case of Africa, the growth was even more impressive, from $3 million to $36 million between 2001 and 2008.
Secondly, beyond this strictly commercial logic, India also invested on a soft power
offensive, trying to actively differentiate from what is seen as other external actors’ “predatory mercantilism”, in particular by China. Capitalizing on the influence of its large diaspora and its historic positive image, New Delhi started a myriad of new projects, seeking to create synergies with strategic sectors of African civil society. The main effort in this regard has been the Pan-African e-network
, which created a cross-country network of communications in the field of health and education. India’s ITEC
program, under which thousands of African and Latin Americans have come to get training in India, has also been significantly expanded over the last decade. This way, New Delhi sought to underline its collaborative “benign intentions” and the “mutual benefits” of its Southern offensive.
India invested on a soft power offensive, trying to differentiate from what is seen as “predatory mercantilism”, in particular by China.
Finally, a third form of implementing this strategy has been through the field of international institutions. Unlike China, India is a founder of the G77
, which brings together developing countries in a multilateral forum, and over which it has presided twice. Delhi’s effort to realize its ambition as a regional leader of the South is particularly important at the Doha round of trade negotiations, as well as on a range of other North-South disputes such as climate change, the reform of the UN, the World Bank, the IMF and other post-1945 multilateral institutions.
A practical form of cementing this institutional leadership has been achieved through India’s participation in the IBSA
axis with Brazil, South Africa, where it has been at the forefront of efforts directed at fostering a more intense cooperation on “new questions” in the scientific, technological, environmental and civil society realms. It is on this Southern axis that Indian diplomats feel most comfortable, persistently (even if implicitly) underlining the “normative difference” separating their country from the remaining “traditional” and “power-hungry” actors, in particular China.
Threats and opportunities
If India’s Southern ambition has ceased to be a utopia, and is advancing on the ground, is it to be understood as a threat or an opportunity? It depends on the perspective. For the interests of developing countries of the South, it is a welcome offensive, offering an alternative to the model of Chinese penetration. And beyond that, the Indian availability to defend the South’s main grievances and agenda on a global level promises to increase the visibility and international influence of the developing countries of Latin America and Africa.
On the other side, for other mid-range powers such as Brazil, South Africa or China, this Indian ambition presents itself as a threat (or at least a challenge), all three competing fiercely to be accorded the status of leader of the “Global South’s”. Beyond rhetoric, which underlines the official spirit of “cooperation”, there are important loci of tension among these countries, notably in Africa, in which they compete desperately for greater economic and political influence.
Finally, for the USA and EU and the international community in general, this Indian ambition presents itself as an opportunity. If India really intends to draw closer to developing countries, it will necessarily have to adopt a set of global causes, the so-called global commons
, including maritime security on the East African coast, sustainable development, and the burdensome task of promoting democratic values and the responsibility to protect.
A more southern India will thus necessarily be a more interventive and globally integrated India. Unlike China, if it succeeds as a leading Southern power, India will also be concerned in guaranteeing the peaceful and liberal character of the current world order.