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What happened to the Asia-Africa Growth Corridor?

Since 2014, under the leadership of Prime Ministers Abe Shinzō and Narendra Modi respectively, there has been a notable and growing synergy between Japan’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy and India’s ‘Act East’ policy. However, unlike the Indo-Pacific outlooks of the United States, Australia and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), both India and Japan have placed great emphasis on the development of stronger economic links and ‘industrial corridors’ between Africa and Asia.

Indeed, while a broad range of bilateral economic, political and strategic agreements have underpinned their deepening relationships, the two states continue to explore prospects for cooperative economic engagement across the Indo-Pacific’s western-most fringe.

This policy synergy resulted in the announcement in May 2017 of the concept of the Asia Africa Growth Corridor Initiative (AAGC), an initiative purposed to integrate Africa and the western Indian Ocean more comprehensively into the sprawling economic, institutional and political networks already undergirding the Indo-Pacific. Two years on, however, and that “strategically ambitious proposition” remains squarely in the development phase, a trend seemingly at odds with the wider fortunes of India and Japan’s bilateral relationship.

The India-Japan partnership in Africa is seemingly a natural one, with one country’s strengths complimenting the other to the task of economic engagement with Africa. India has long cultivated significant people-to-people and business links across the continent, while Japan continues to offer the capital and technological knowledge needed to drive economic and infrastructural development across the continent. Broadly speaking, the AAGC concept is underpinned by the principles of the ‘India and Japan Vision 2025 Special Strategic and Global Partnership’, namely respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity; free and open global trade, and reliable, sustainable and resilient infrastructure, including debt management. It was in November 2016, however, that a joint statement from Abe and Modi explicitly identified the improvement of connectivity between Asia and Africa as an imperative for bilateral cooperation. In May 2017, Modi formally unveiled the concept of AAGC at the 52nd Annual Meeting of the African Development Bank (AfDB), in the form of a vision document which nominated four foundational pillars:

1. development and cooperation projects (including in agriculture, health and the blue-water economy);

2. quality infrastructure and institutional connectivity;

3. enhancing capacities and skills to sustain local economies and infrastructure, and;

4. strong people-to-people partnerships.

The document claimed that India and Japan would pursue the AAGC “to improve growth and interconnectedness between and within Asia and Africa for realising a free and open Indo-Pacific region.” Some contended that the timing of the announcement was significant given that the first Belt and Road Forum in Beijing - an initiative which India refuses to sign-up to - was in session around the same time. The announcement of the vision document was followed up by yet another Abe-Modi joint statement in September 2017 which highlighted “efforts to explore the development of industrial corridors and industrial network for the growth of Asia and Africa” and for the benefit of the wider Indo-Pacific.

Two years on, however, and the AAGC has yet to get off the ground.

Ahead of Modi’s visit to Japan in October 2018, then-Indian Foreign Secretary Shri Vijay Gokhale indicated that while India and Japan were exploring collaboration on a handful of economic projects in Africa with some “considerable progress”, the AAGC proper was still very much in the development and discussion phase. That, the Secretary offered, was due to differences in internal government procedures and regulations, and the “different models for collaboration” employed by each state. As such, while the October 2018 Abe-Modi Joint Statement noted progress towards the establishment of a “Platform for Japan-India Business Cooperation in Asia-Africa Region”, the AAGC did not even rate a mention. That lead some commentators to suggest that the initiative’s geopolitical designs would at least initially be put on hold in favour of “a lower profile, business-oriented project".

It might be tempting to view the setback as a sign of reluctance from either or both India and Japan to commit to the AAGC. However, it is perhaps more helpful to suggest that they are simply establishing how to most effectively do so. Indeed, both states continue to attach great importance to supporting economic and infrastructural development across Africa. Japan announced in March that it would be establishing a permanent council between a range of government ministries and private sector investors in order to enhance Japan’s presence and influence in Africa. Meanwhile, Indian private healthcare and telecommunications companies have worked to strengthen digital and people-to-people links between Africa and the Subcontinent, most notably through the e-VidyaBharati and e-ArogyaBharati Network Project which serves to connect African and Indian health and education practitioners.

The elephant in the room in all of this, of course, is China’s Belt-Road Initiative (BRI). Whether or not the AAGC is intended to compete with the BRI, the Corridor’s geopolitical utility is difficult to ignore in light of macro-economic and political events. But simply comparing the initiative to Chinese activities loses sight of the significant step forward in India-Japan global cooperation that a successful AAGC would represent.

The AAGC could represent a test-case for large-scale geoeconomic coordination between the two countries, and the degree to which the corridor is or is not ultimately successful could set the tone for future cooperation and coordination between the two elsewhere in the Indo-Pacific. In the event that the AAGC does become a serious initiative, it would not be all that surprising to eventually find preexisting Indian and/or Japanese projects in Africa baring the AAGC brand, much in the way that many Chinese-led overseas projects (including in Australia) from earlier years now seemingly fly the BRI banner.

In any case, it is probably premature for analysts and policy practitioners alike to talk about the AAGC in terms of its geopolitical utility. For now, the greatest attention ought to be given over to making sure that the necessary dynamics and mechanisms for streamlining India-Japan cooperation in Africa are in place before the two consider taking on any major projects together. The favourable domestic political fortunes of both Prime Ministers Abe and Modi will likely improve the initiative’s prospects for operationalisation.

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