Latin America Advisor

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What Can Stronger Ties Mean for India & Latin America?

Photo of Indian foreign minister and Panamanian president. Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar met last month with Latin American leaders including Panamanian President Laurentino Cortizo (L-R). // Photo: @DrSJaishankar via Twitter.

Indian Foreign Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar on April 24 began a two-day visit to Panama, where he met with President Laurentino Cortizo and participated in a business forum with representatives of Indian companies. Jaishankar, the first sitting Indian foreign affairs minister to visit Panama, was on a multi-country tour of Latin America that included a prior stop in Guyana and visits to Colombia and the Dominican Republic and aimed to increase South-South cooperation. What can be said about the timing of Jaishankar’s trip to Latin America, and what did he accomplish on the tour? What is the state of India-Latin America ties, and what are the most promising avenues for cooperation?

Hari Seshasayee, advisor to Panama’s foreign minister and Asia-Latin America expert at the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP): “Jaishankar’s visit to Panama, Guyana, Colombia and the Dominican Republic was the first for an Indian foreign minister to these countries. Since being appointed foreign minister, Jaishankar has visited eight countries in the region. If anything, this is testament to Jaishankar’s personal understanding of foreign policy and his background as a former diplomat. He is aware that India has for long neglected the Latin American region, and he wants to set things right. His gesture to visit these countries was reciprocated in large part—he met with the presidents of Panama, Guyana and the Dominican Republic, and also met a dozen ministers from neighboring Central American and Caribbean countries as part of the India-SICA and India-Caricom ministerial meetings that were held in Panama and Guyana. Notwithstanding this renewed political will, India-Latin America ties have always been driven by the economic relationship, largely by the private sector on both sides. Jaishankar’s keynote speech at the Latin America-India Business Forum in Panama underscored the reality that business will remain the driver of India-Latin America ties, with governments playing a supporting role. His visit comes at an opportune time: India-Latin America trade reached an all-time high of $50 billion in 2022. This is far from the level of China-LAC trade at $450 billion but still puts India among the region’s top 10 trading partners. The new opportunities in India-Latin America ties lie in renewable energies and advanced technology.”

Jorge Heine, research professor at the Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University and a former Chilean ambassador to India: “The visit of Foreign Minister Jaishankar is highly significant. In the past, Indian foreign ministers rarely set foot in Latin America. Jaishankar grasps that India cannot aspire to play a global role if it ignores 33 countries in the Western Hemisphere. This was his third visit to the region (he visited Mexico in 2021, and he visited Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay in 2022). India has also opened new embassies in the Dominican Republic and in Paraguay. At a time when India is chairing the G20 and managing a delicate balancing act in its relations with Washington and Moscow (given its nonaligned stance on the war in Ukraine), this is noteworthy. It speaks well of Jaishankar, a career foreign service officer with a Ph.D. in international relations, who has now been in office four years—a rare occurrence in a cabinet position with high turnover in India. Indo-LAC trade has skyrocketed in the past 20 years, from $1.6 billion in 2000 to $42.5 billion in 2021, though this only scratches the surface in terms of its potential. Latin America’s leading export to India is oil, whereas vehicles, pharmaceuticals and chemical products are India’s main exports. Trade is concentrated in Brazil, Mexico, Argentina and Colombia. One of the most promising growth areas is IT-enabled services, where Indian companies like Tata Consulting Services (TCS), Infosys and Wipro are world leaders. TCS has a presence in 16 Latin American countries. This should be especially significant for Panama, a transport, logistics and services hub in the Americas. India, until now, has had a limited presence there, something that Panama’s foreign minister, Janaina Tewaney, of Indian origin herself, is determined to change.”

Devika Misra, assistant professor at the Jindal School of International Affairs: “Since the start of the second Modi term in 2019 in particular, there has been an uptick in the number of high-level visits from the Indian government to Latin America. Often bowed down by the weight of its potential and the absence of concrete political will, this is a positive sign for India-Latin America relations. Though there have not been any state visits even by the internationalist prime minister of India to a Latin American country with the exception of those for international conventions, this is Jaishankar’s second recent foray into the region. Last year, he visited Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil. The significance of the previous visit resulted in conversations about closer cooperation in G20, expansion of BRICS membership and an attempt to capitalize on the goodwill India has generated via its pandemic management efforts. Similarly, the visit to Panama, especially for an event organized by the Confederation of Indian Industry, is an added impetus to the biggest champions of the India-LAC relationship—that of its business sector. As conversations on nonalignment and agency have gained ground in Latin America, Jaishankar’s visit as the emissary of traditional nonalignment in a bid to promote and solidify business interests is emblematic of the agency that the nonalignment option has always attempted to eke out for itself. Given that this visit is to be followed by another similar event in India in August, these are promising signs indeed for a relationship that is often relegated to the background in Indian foreign policymaking.” 


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