India and Latin America have a lot in common. If the gaze of the world is falling on India today, it’s thanks to India’s rise as a major global power. India and Latin America are slowly moving towards a mature partnership. After decades of neglect and limited engagement, the Latin American and Caribbean region is becoming India’s next big thing. While trade and economic exchanges are becoming significant, the two-way high-level visits have added a new dynamism to Indo-Latin American relations.
After the political, diplomatic, economic and military outreach in Africa, East and South East Asia; India is now making systematic efforts to focus on Latin American and the Caribbean region. It is against this background that Indian President Ram Nath Kovind’s visit to Bolivia and Chile needs to be understood and analysed. Latin America has become increasingly important for India’s foreign policy objectives. New Delhi is doing well to push for highest level contacts that have been missing. China has benefited immensely from regular high-level contacts with the region. Of course, China is picking up the cherries. India need not follow the Chinese model.
Presidential visits to Latin America are no more primarily ceremonial. The high-level visits are now well-structured to ensure deeper engagement. These visits have been accompanied by large business delegations and interactions with university faculty and students as also meetings with the expatriate community. Last year President Kovind visited Suriname and Cuba and Vice-President Venkaiah Naidu visited Guatemala, Panama and Peru.
President Kovind undertook his visit to Bolivia in the first leg of his two nation South American tour. Bolivia is not only rich in lithium reserves and other energy resources and minerals; it is also holding the presidency of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC).
The highlight of the first-ever visit by the Indian President was the signing of a MoU for cooperation in geology and mineral resources. Bolivia will supply lithium carbonates to India. The two sides have agreed to opertionalise a joint venture for lithium batteries. India and Bolivia have shown interest in exploration and development of hydrocarbons including the possibility of importing LNG from Bolivia to India and the laying of a gas pipeline.
President Kovind’s visit to Chile during the 70th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries marked a major step forward in deepening bilateral ties. If India is celebrating the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi, Chile is commemorating the 130th birth anniversary on Gabriela Mistral, the first female Latin American poet to receive the Nobel Prize in literature.
The Indian President and his Chilean counterpart President Sebastian Pinera reaffirmed their commitment to “reformed multilateralism”. Both India and Chile favour comprehensive reforms of the UN Security Council, including its expansion to make it “more representative, accountable, transparent, inclusive and effective.” Both the sides have expressed satisfaction over the expansion of Preferential Trade Agreement (PTA) which has resulted in substantial increase in bilateral trade.
Things are moving for the better. Latin America’s exports to India grew by about 10 percent from US$ 23.4 billion in 2017 to US$ 26 billion in 2018. Last year India’s exports to Latin America increased by 10.9 percent. However, there is very limited cooperation between India and the region in the fields of defence production, research and development or even joint military exercises.
Latin American and Caribbean countries have enhanced their diplomatic presence in India. Even smaller countries have opened up missions. India too has realized the potential of this region. Ignoring this market would be a mistake. Synergies and complementarities are driving India towards deeper engagement with countries of Latin America and Caribbean. The same holds good for Latin America as well. India cannot afford to miss the opportunity in the region which has a population of about 600 million and a GDP of nearly US$ 5 trillion.
Script: Dr. Ash Narain Roy , Director, Institute of Social Sciences, Delhi