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India follows China's path with Africa overture

April 09, 2008 11:30 IST

India will unveil on Wednesday a "blueprint" for its intensifying engagement with Africa, a symbolic step that reflects New Delhi's anxiety over China's growing influence on the continent and its desire to mimic the close economic and commercial ties forged by Beijing in recent years.

Manmohan Singh, India's prime minister, on Tuesday announced duty-free access to Indian markets for the world's 50 least developed countries (LDCs), 34 of which are in Africa, as part of a package of measures designed to highlight New Delhi's commitment to deepening relations with the continent.

Inaugurating the first India-Africa Forum, a two-day summit in New Delhi attended by eight heads of African states and delegations from 14 African countries, Mr Singh said the scheme would provide preferential market access on tariff lines that comprise 92.5 per cent of all LDC exports, including diamonds, cotton, cocoa, aluminium ore and copper ore.

Declaring India's intent to become "a close partner in Africa's resurgence", Mr Singh called for a "new architecture" in relations. A step towards this will come on Wednesday, with the signature of an "Africa-India Framework for Co-operation" and a "Delhi Declaration", he said.

Mr Singh said India would more than double the size of credit lines to projects in Africa, from $2.15bn to $5.4bn between 2003-04 and 2008-09. He also promised to boost India's aid budget to Africa, pledging grants of $500m (Euro 318m, £252m) for projects over the next five to six years.

In 2006, India woke up to Chinese influence in Africa when Beijing hosted the China-Africa Co-operation Forum, a display of economic clout that attracted more than 40 African heads of state. Tuesday's summit comes in the wake of similar meetings between African leaders and those of the European Union and Japan.

"It sounds a lot like something Beijing did a few years ago," said Philip Alves, an economist at South Africa's Institute of International Affairs. "It's a mini-China approach to dealing with Africa. It has all the same elements, except on a much smaller scale."

He added: "India is in all the same countries as China, including Sudan, it's just below the radar because its investments are so much smaller."

India's trade with Africa has soared from just under $1bn in 1991, the year the Indian economy began to open up to the outside world, to $30bn in 2007-08. The value of China's trade with Africa, worth less than India's in 1999, has since leapt to $55bn.

African exports to China surged 48 per cent between 1999-2004, compared with 14 per cent growth in exports to India.

India rejects talk of a race with China for Africa's resources. Jairam Ramesh, a junior commerce minister, recently said that Beijing was too far ahead for New Delhi to hope of catching up in the near future. "There is no race between us; the Chinese have left us far, far behind."

Jo Johnson in New Delhi