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Portuguese-speaking countries: a new niche for Indian foreign policy?

Constantino Xavier is Visiting International Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analysies. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • August 26, 2010

    Delhi will host this week the annual heads of missions (HoMs) conference, a gathering of all ambassadors and high commissioners that represent India in more than one hundred countries. From Af-Pak to the upcoming visit of President Obama, the envoys will have a lot to brainstorm about, but here is one more idea: if India wants to engage with the “Global South” in a more meaningful way, it should recognize its Anglophone bias and consider developing relations with Portuguese-speaking countries and thus open one more specific front in its foreign policy.

    The immense Portuguese-speaking world

    More people speak Portuguese as their native language than French, German, Italian or Japanese. With close to 250 millions speakers, it is the fifth most spoken language in the world and an official language in eight countries across four continents, of which six are in Africa (Angola, Mozambique, Guinea Bissau, Cape Verde, Sao Tome and Principe) and one each in Europe (Portugal), South America (Brazil) and Asia (Timor Leste). It also remains an official language in Macau and is spoken by several thousand people in smaller regions, such as in Goa.

    On the diplomatic level, the language enjoys an official status at several international institutions and regional organizations, including the European Union, Mercorsur, the African Union and the Organization of American States. There is also an active movement to make it the seventh official language at the United Nations.

    The political dimension of this immense Lusophone world is institutionalized in the Community of Portuguese Language Countries (CPLP), founded in 1996. It is based on the inter-governmental lines of the Commonwealth or Francophonie organizations and all eight Portuguese-speaking countries are its members. Equatorial Guinea, Mauritius and Senegal are associate observers. The eighth summit, held last month in Luanda, marked the beginning of Angola’s first presidency over the organization.

    From Brazil to Timor: a lot at stake for India

    The economic and strategic importance of the Lusophone world to India’s interests cannot be minimized. Each of the countries offers a distinct stake for Indian interests, and together they represent eight valuable votes and a lot of influence on the global stage.

    India’s relations with Brazil have witnessed an unprecedented intensification since President Lula came to power in 2003 – he has visited India three times since then. The BRIC country emerged a central partner in India’s efforts to re-engage with the “Global South”, most notably under the India-Brazil-South Africa (IBSA) axis. Its high-growth economy offers several opportunities for India to explore, from potential oil reserves to a booming industry and services sector that has already attracted several Indian investments, especially in IT, energy and pharmaceuticals. Defence relations have also prospered, from exercises such as IBSAMAR to the acquisition of several Embraer jets by the Indian Air Force. Bilateral relations are at its best, and Brazil, in particular financial hubs like Sao Paulo, now plays a larger role as India’s gateway to Latin America.

    Relations with Portugal have also changed drastically. Gone are the days of the Salazar-Nehru stalemate and the subsequent post-colonial unease: Lisbon now hosts the Tata Consultancy Services office for Latin America and, given its immense expertise and closeness to Luanda and Maputo, it can also facilitate India’s entry into Angola and Mozambique, as well as other Lusophone countries in which it remains influential at the political level. Indian investors are also keen on exploring opportunities in the energy sector, as Portugal now is the third largest producer of renewable energies in Europe.

    Angola has become one of India’s major trading partners in Africa, mainly due to its massive reserves of natural resources. 5 per cent of India’s oil imports already originate from Angola, and there is an immense scope for further Indian bids and investments, from exploration and refinery capacity to supporting infrastructure such as railways and specialized training. The same applies to the booming diamond industry, Angola being the world’s fifth largest producer in value and a privileged source for India’s polishing and commercialization segments. The monumental growth in Indo-Angolan trade (more than 3,000 per cent in the last five years) goes much beyond oil and petroleum products and reflects the immense potential of what, at 9.3 per cent, is forecasted to be the fifth fastest growing economy in the world in 2010.

    Mozambique’s natural resources (coal and offshore gas) have attracted several major public and private investments from India (ONGC, GAIL) – and this is perhaps one of the few African countries in which India has been able to compete with China in terms of influence. Maputo is now considering the possibility of a strategic partnership and has expressed its admiration for India’s democratic growth story. The country’s strategic location on the East African coast, facing the Mozambique Channel and in the proximity of several piracy-affected sea lines of communication, also offers an immense potential for closer military relations, allowing India’s Navy to develop its oceanic ambitions.

    Smaller Lusophone countries also offer distinct opportunities for India. There are substantial resources such as oil and gas reserves in the Timor Sea (jointly explored with Australia) and oil reserves in Sao Tome and Principe (with Nigeria) where important Indian investments are at stake (Reliance and ONGC). Macau also emerges as an attractive financial and tourist hub for Indian interests in East Asia.

    On the economic front, India’s economic engagement is thus already at an advanced stage. A quick glance at total trade figures of India with the eight members of the CPLP indicates that despite the global recession, it has grown more than four-fold in just five years, from less than US $ 2.7 billion in 2005-06 to $ 11.8 billion in 2009-10. This now represents more than 2.5 per cent of India’s total trade, up from little more than 1 per cent in 2005-06.

    Why and how to engage: four options

    Sceptics of the idea of adding a Lusophone dimension to India’s foreign relations may point out that there is little scope to engage such a diverse and geographically dispersed lot of countries – from powerhouse Brazil to tiny Timor – under a single policy. But anyone who has crossed the corridors of international diplomacy or attended bilateral business conclaves will recognize the persistent importance of language. Even when proceedings are conducted in English or translators facilitate interaction, communication tends to be sub-optimal, punctuated by occasional misunderstandings and tension.

    The issue becomes even more important at lower levels of engagement, beyond official high-level meetings. From an ITEC or ICCR-sponsored Angolan or Guinean attending an Indian educational or training programme, to a Portuguese or Brazilian businessmen looking out for investment opportunities in Bangalore – language still poses as a major hurdle and will continue to constrain India’s capacity to explore the full potential of relations with Portuguese-speaking countries and attract their investment and talent.

    There are several ways India could develop this niche diplomacy and engage in a more meaningful way. China is well ahead in this regard, but New Delhi is well positioned to catch up.

    First, given its strong historical links with Lusophone regions, especially with Brazil, Mozambique, and Portugal, as well as its Portuguese-speaking communities in Goa, Daman and Diu, there is no reason why India should not be entitled to enjoy an associate observer status with the CPLP. Equatorial Guinea, Mauritius and Senegal have all succeeded in acquiring such a status, and even China and Indonesia have expressed their interest. Such a role would allow New Delhi to attend the summits as an observer and participate in a limited way in some of the organizations’ activities, especially in terms of people-to-people and economic cooperation, but also on the technical or military dimension, including the embryonic idea of a Lusophone peacekeeping force.

    Second, India could also follow the example of the Macao Forum, instituted by China in 2008 as a high-level ministerial meeting with all eight CPLP member countries. This dialogue has been identified as the major force driving China’s successful engagement with the Lusophone economies, with total trade expected to cross $ 50 billion this year. In India, former Union Minister for External Affairs, Eduardo Faleiro, proposed a similar idea in 2009, calling for a “biannual structured dialogue” between India and the CPLP countries, possibly in Goa (under Portuguese rule until 1961) or Mumbai (until 1661). Complemented by a business conclave and other civil society initiatives, such an India-CPLP dialogue would create new synergies and allow India to play a more influential role in the Lusophone world.

    Third, India could also explore Goa as an ideal host for Portuguese-speaking students and officials who are selected to visit India under various ICCR and ITEC programs. For example, linguistic and cultural barriers are the most frequent reason invoked by many African grantees to explain their disinterest in vacant scholarship slots or their negative experiences while in India. A Portuguese-speaking Angolan or Guinean would, however, be certainly far more open to the idea of studying or training in Goa, either in Portuguese or in English, in a much more familiar context than in hinterland Kanpur or Hyderabad. Also, if India is already considering offering ITEC training in French language, there is no reason why it should not be able to add Portuguese and thus increase the overall attractiveness of its cooperation programmes.

    Finally, all these initiatives will also depend on India’s actual capacity to increase its Lusophone expertise and influence. Three CPLP countries - Guinea Bissau, Cape Verde, and Sao Tome and Principe - are among only eleven (out of 53) African countries without an Indian embassy, high commission or honorary consulate. There are also very few Indian diplomats and scholars that master Portuguese or have a specific expertise on a Portuguese-speaking country. At the same time, however, several Indian army and civilian officials have lived in Lusophone countries in several capacities, the most recent case being that of Atul Khare, who led the United Nations Integrated Mission in Timor. Their experience could serve as a valuable asset for India’s Lusophone niche diplomacy.

    The power of sports and diplomacy

    These are only some avenues that India could explore to engage the Portuguese-speaking world in a more strategic way. There is no doubt that, on their side, CPLP countries also need to start working more cohesively on various fronts – in New Delhi, for example, the four Lusophone embassies interact informally but have done little to set up a platform to promote their common interests in India.

    The time for a more intense India-CPLP engagement, however, seems to have come. And, not surprisingly, change is coming from the most unexpected quarter – sports. In an unprecedented move with important implications, the Indian Olympic Association agreed in 2006 to become a member of the Association of the Portuguese-Speaking Olympic Associations. It has since then agreed to participate in the first two editions of the “Lusophone Games” and also backed Goa’s successful bid to host the third edition in 2013.

    On the diplomatic level, the eight CPLP member countries could start informal consultations on the possibility of engaging India in a more structured way. Both India and Portugal will most probably succeed in their bids to a non-permanent seat in the UN Security Council for the 2011-12 mandate, which opens one more channel of consultations on the best way for India to explore one more niche and thus diversify its foreign policy.