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To Africa, on Japan’s heels

New Delhi, Jan. 28: Foreign minister Salman Khurshid will on Thursday leave for a week-long trip of key North African nations as India battles rising competition for markets, resources and influence not just from China — but from Japan, a nation India embraced just this past weekend.

Khurshid will travel first to Morocco and then Tunisia, before flying to Sudan and returning to India on February 5.

“Both in terms of our ties with Africa, and our ties with the Arab world, the visit is crucial because of the message we want to send at a time when the region is tense and torn between competing interests,” a senior government official told The Telegraph.

North Africa, with its ties to West Asia, has suffered multiple convulsions since the Arab Spring erupted three years ago. Tunisia is a fledgling democracy and Sudan — divided with the creation of South Sudan in 2011 — is currently battling insurgency on its borders. In Morocco, the king survived the Arab Spring through a series of reforms.

But in all three nations, India also holds key economic interests. Morocco and Tunisia are two of India’s most reliable sources of phosphates — crucial for a variety of fertilisers that catalyse India’s food production. Sudan is rich in oil, natural gas and heavy metals — and the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation, Bharat Heavy Electricals Limited and a slew of major auto manufacturers including the Mahindras, Tatas and the Bajaj group have investments there.

But Africa, where China and India have over the past decade filled in for declining western aid and investments, gaining in influence but also effectively competing with each other, has a new investor to turn to.

Away from the territorial dispute with China in the seas, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has launched a dramatic outreach initiative aimed at Africa, upsetting Beijing the most but also worrying New Delhi.

Abe, who was chief guest at India’s Republic Day this past weekend, was on a tour of Africa just 10 days before he landed in New Delhi.

The Japanese Prime Minister pledged a whopping $320 billion aid initiative to help resolve conflicts in Africa, while meeting African Union leaders in Addis Ababa during his trip.

That aid will include $25 million to help diffuse the crisis in South Sudan, and $3 billion to the Central African Republic. Abe also announced a $2 billion loan to the African private sector.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development — a group of the world’s most industrialised nations — in a 2009 report had concluded that China was Africa’s biggest trading partner, with 13.5 per cent of the continent’s trade. India, that report said, held 4.9 per cent of Africa’s trade while Japan languished at just 2.7 per cent.