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Fusing adventure with diplomacy: India’s Latin America odyssey

September 02, 2013 Manish Chand

It’s an epic odyssey, spanning a 35,000- km overland journey from the Arctic to the Antarctic, and promises to provide fresh ballast to India’s reawakened Latin America diplomacy. Thousands of miles apart, but kindred in spirit, Latin America, a resource-rich continent better known for soccer, samba and carnival, is set to inch closer to India in this spectacular journey undertaken by explorer and author Akhil Bakshi.

In this cross-continental four-month voyage that begins this week, Bakshi, a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and vice-president of the Indian Mountaineering Foundation, will be accompanied by Rajendra Jain, a surgeon working in the tribal district of Gondia. Their journey will start at Dead Horse Creek on Arctic Ocean in Alaska and pass through the US west coast before entering Latin and South America and ending at Cape Horn, the southernmost tip of the continent.

Climate Change

The climate is indeed changing in the hitherto staid world of India’s diplomacy. Adventure and innovation are the new mantra. India’s foreign office has been quick to harness this independent voyage to showcase and promote the country’s renewed push to expand its diplomatic footprints in the continent which is emerging as a new growth pole in the world. Encapsulating the new ethos of thinking out of the box, External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid said: "We will have to break out of the old model of government support even in the field of cultural diplomacy.” It is in this spirit Indian missions across the continent have been asked to facilitate the Arctic-Antarctic journey themed ‘Pangea One World’, at different points in a host of countries such as the US, Mexico, Guatemala, Antigua, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Panama, Ecuador and Argentina. "The focus of the expedition will be climate change,” says Bakshi. "During the journey, meetings will be held with environment scientists, meterologists, hydrographers and agronomists to study action being taken by various countries on monitoring the status of climate change and on their preparedness to meet the challenge.” The explorer will present a report to India’s Ministry of Environment and Forests after the expedition.

Hola, Latin America!

The expedition has coincided with the most serious and ambitious phase in India’s efforts to expand ties with Latin America. Looking ahead, Vice-President Hamid Ansari will be heading to Peru on a state visit next month. Salman Khurshid, who visited Chile and Argentina earlier this year, will travel to Brazil in October to chair the meeting of the heads of missions of Latin American and Caribbean region.

The minister is all too aware of the need for more focused hard work to galvanise India’s diplomatic and economic ties with the region. "Latin America is something we need to work on. We just have not had enough bilateral visits. They have made more visits than we have and we need to reciprocate that,” he said.

Khurshid hopes that the Pangea One World expedition will rekindle old and new connections between India and the region that is projected to be the next big frontier for Indian diplomacy. "We can do with a little more awareness about India in a continent we hardly have any people to people contact with and in that way we believe this expedition will indeed help,” he said.

Blending economics and culture

Continental distances had inhibited the flowering of India’s multi-faceted ties with the region, but New Delhi is now in no mood to let go of the emerging land of opportunity.

Blending economics and culture is the way to go. Trade shows and a literary festival are being planned to kindle both magic and realism in India’s relations with Latin America, the energy-rich region known for its exotic beauty, joyous love of life and world-famous authors delighting in the way history and myths intersect everyday life. Gandhi, Nehru and Tagore strike an instant chord with people of the region. There is a lot of fascination for India in this region, says Khurshid.

Building upon its cumulative expansion of trade with the region which has now reached $25 billion and investments touching $15 billion, India hosted host its maiden dialogue with a troika of foreign ministers of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) in July last year. There are plans to institute an India-Latin America and Caribbean Dialogue Mechanism similar to that of the India-Africa Forum Summit that started in 2008.

The resurgent region boasts a combined GDP of $4.9 trillion and is home to 600 million inhabitants, nearly half the population of India but with a landmass five times that of India. The region has also shaken off its reputation as a home of brutal dictatorships with most Latin American countries turning into functional democracies.

It is against this backdrop that a new India with its proven prowess in IT and knowledge industries is seeking to scale up ties with a new Latin America. Latin America’s attractions for India are myriad. "The region is going to play an increasingly important role in energy security for India. Currently, Latin America contributes around 10 percent of India’s crude oil imports. The region has 15 percent of global reserves and new discoveries of oil will ensure that it will become more important for India’s energy security,” says R. Viswanathan, a Latin America enthusiast and a former ambassador to Argentina. "Similarly, Latin America will be crucial for India’s food security. It is already a significant source of edible oils,” he says.

The China Factor

Besides the imperatives of energy and food security and the attractions of the burgeoning Latin American market, what is driving India to deepen its diplomatic and economic footprints despite continental distances in the region is the growing presence of China. India’s trade with Latin America has grown to $25 billion, not an insignificant amount, but nearly 10 times smaller than that of China with the region, which is estimated at around $235 billion. However, India’s engagement has its own strengths that can’t be compared to that of China, says Sonia Gupta, the head of department of the Centre for European and Latin American studies at the Jamia Millia Islamia.” "No doubt, China has a huge presence in Latin America. But India, too, has its core strengths in IT, knowledge industries and capacity building which are much sought after in the region,” she says.

Crossing New Frontiers

In the intensely competitive globalised world, this is, however, no time for feel-good rhetoric or smugness. New Delhi needs to scale up its efforts on multiple fronts to leverage the full potential of the region. "Yet, with this new decade come new challenges. If we want to realise the full potential of India-LAC ties, the density of these exchanges needs to be increased. This implies institutionalising them, making them part of the regular agenda of the government and the private sector,” says Jorge Heine, a former ambassador of Chile to India and co-author of The Dark Side of Globalization. Hopefully, India will seize the day, and its Latin America odyssey will cross new milestones in days to come.

(The views expressed above are the personal views of the author)

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Fusing adventure with diplomacy: India’s Latin America odyssey

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