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OPINION: China's intense engagement with Latin America is a lesson for India

India needs to raise both its investments and soft power projections in Latin America

china-south-america-latin-america-rep-pixabay Representational image | Pixabay

The second high-level academic forum and the sixth think tank forum between China and the Community of Latin American and the Caribbean States (CELAC) met on October 12-13 in Beijing. The event was organised by the Institute of Latin America Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences Beijing, in collaboration with the UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC, based in Santiago), the Chinese People’s Institute of Foreign Affairs, the China Institute of International Studies, the China Foundation of International Studies and the United Nations.

Roberto Escalante Semerena, Secretary-General of the Association of Universities and Institutions of Higher Education of Latin America and the Caribbean (UDUAL) also participated in the event. The event was sponsored by the foreign ministries of Mexico (current president of CELAC) and China. Experts, officials and entrepreneurs from both sides participated.

The Latin Americans expressed appreciation to China, which had given the region 241 million doses of COVID vaccines out of the total of 946 million doses that Beijing has given to the world.

The academic forum and think tank forum are both part of the larger China-CELAC Forum that was established in 2014. Under it, meetings are held at various levels and in different subjects.

In July 2014, President Xi Jinping announced that China would provide CELAC countries with 6,000 governmental scholarships, 6,000 training opportunities and 400 opportunities for on-the-job master degree programs in China between 2015 and 2019. In 2015, China officially launched the ten-year training program for 1,000 young leaders from both sides entitled the “Future Bridge”.

By the end of that year, China had opened 39 Confucius Institutes and 18 Confucius Classrooms in 20 LAC countries. There are more than 100,000 Latin American students enrolled in the Chinese language and culture programs of the Institute. There is detailed and clear information on China-CELAC activities in this link.

The Chinese side takes most of the initiative in setting up these elaborate structures, financing projects and activities, holding regular meetings and systematically following up. 

India held its first Indo-CELAC Troika Foreign Ministers meeting in New Delhi in August 2012, a year after the formation of CELAC in December 2011. The CELAC Troika visited New Delhi before Beijing. In this meeting, the two sides agreed to set up an India-CELAC Business Council and an India-CELAC CEOs Forum, Energy Forum, Agriculture Forum and Science Forum. There have also been a few more meetings at the foreign minister-level during the United Nations General Assembly. But, India has not sustained its engagement with CELAC as impressively and comprehensively as China has done.

China's trade with the region in 2020 was $315 billion as against India’s trade of $28.8 billion. China has given a credit line of $160 billion while India’s line of credit is $496 million. China’s investment in the region is $110 billion which is 11 times bigger than the Indian investment of about $10 billion.

While India cannot ever hope to match China’s scale in trade, investment and credit, it can certainly learn from the serious and systematic way by which the Chinese cultivate Latin America, through multiple channels and with intense engagement.

The Latin Americans are keen for a partnership with India as part of their strategic policy to reduce over-dependence on China and [increase] diversification. They are appreciative of India's annual supply of a billion dollars of affordable generic medicines which have helped reduce the cost of healthcare of the Latin American people and governments. They are impressed by India's $10 billion investment and the employment of 35,000 Latin American staff in the two dozen Indian IT companies that operate in the region. India has become a top export destination for Latin America in recent years.

It is heartening to see that the Ministry of External Affairs of India is attaching more importance to the region in recent years and has taken several initiatives to reach out to it. There have been many visits of Indian dignitaries, ministers and officials covering all the countries in the area. India has increased its technical assistance and development partnership and has just opened two more embassies in Paraguay and the Dominican Republic adding to the ten embassies in the 19 countries of the region.

More things for consideration by MEA:

  • Revive India-CELAC engagement besides proactive subregional interactions with Mercosur, Pacific Alliance and Central American SICA group.
  • Open embassies in Ecuador, Bolivia, Uruguay, Costa Rica, Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador.
  • Increase the strength of diplomatic missions in the region. At the moment most embassies operate with one and a half diplomats: An ambassador and a trainee diplomat
  • Set up cultural centres in more Latin American countries to project soft power. At the moment, only Brazil and Mexico have Indian cultural centres.
  • Persuade the Commerce Ministry to revive its Focus LAC programme which had helped in the past in encouraging and supporting Indian exporters to explore the business opportunities in Latin America.
  • The annual India-LAC Business Conclave needs to be scaled up and organised regularly by pooling and coordinating the efforts of CII and FICCI and other trade bodies and export promotion councils with substantial financial investment by the government.
  • Announce a credit of a billion dollars to the region spread over five years
  • Join the InterAmerican Development Bank so that Indian companies can participate in their projects
  • Sign FTAs with Mexico, Colombia and Peru which are major destinations for India’s exports in the region
  • Encourage Indian universities and think tanks to open Latin America study centres and Spanish and Portuguese language studies. China has over 60 centres to study Latin America. Spanish language departments in Chinese universities have jumped from 12 in 2000 to more than 80. India has just one university (Goa) which has a Latin America study centre. There are also a few good quality Spanish language courses run by universities and private institutes.

The action by the government of India needs to be supplemented by organizations outside the government sector. The Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) and the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) have been proactively promoting business with Latin America. The Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) is active in cultural exchanges with Latin America.

The India International Centre, New Delhi is planning to organize an IIC conference "Connected Histories, Shared Present: Cross-Cultural Experiences between India and Latin America and the Caribbean" on February 22-25, 2022.

The author is an expert in Latin American affairs.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author's and do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of THE WEEK

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