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Raksha Mantri’s Visit to Egypt: Significance for India–Africa Defence Cooperation

Ruchita Beri is Consultant at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • October 17, 2022

    Raksha Mantri Rajnath Singh’s visit to Egypt from 18 to 20 September 2022 has opened new avenues for defence cooperation. The visit signifies India’s growing defence ties with the African region. The Defence Minister signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with his counterpart General Mohamed Zaki to enhance defence cooperation between the two countries in various sectors including training, joint exercises and defence production. This MoU adds to the list of agreements in defence sector signed between India and various African countries in recent years.

    India’s relationship with Egypt can be traced back to the ancient times. The connect between the Nile River Valley and Indus-Saraswati valley civilisation is well recorded. This centuries-old historical, cultural and economic bond has fostered a strong political and defence partnership between the two countries. Egyptian President Abdel Fatah Al Sisi’s visit to India during the India–Africa Forum Summit of 2015 may be considered a turning point in bilateral ties. Recently, Egypt released a postage stamp to commemorate the 75th anniversary of diplomatic relations with India in 2022. Egypt is also an important partner in the multilateral arena. It is a dialogue partner in the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), became a member of the BRICS bank in 2021 and will be a guest country as India hosts the G20 summit next year.

    Defence cooperation between the two countries has been going on since 1960s. Training has been an important component of the relationship. Particularly noteworthy is the training of Egyptian Airforce pilots by India in the 1960s and 70s. In the 1960s, the two countries were also involved in a joint venture to manufacture the famous Helwan HA-300 jet fighter.1 The push for defence cooperation came with the setting up of the formal Joint Defence Committee (JDC) in 2006. The JDC was tasked with identifying areas of defence collaboration. This committee has since met nine times.   

    Recently, after the decline in COVID-19 pandemic, there has been an increase in bilateral engagements in the field of defence. The first-ever Indian Air Force–Egyptian Air Force Joint Tactical Air Exercise, ‘Desert Warrior’, was held in late October 2021.2 It provided an opportunity to showcase the Su-30 MKI manufactured in India by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited and India’s expertise for deeper indigenisation of spares and components. There has been an exchange of visits at the Air Chief level. India’s Air Chief Marshal V.R. Chaudhari visited Cairo in 2021,3 followed by the Egyptian Air Force Chief Mahmoud Foaad Abd El-Gawad’s visit to New Delhi earlier this year. Similarly, there have been several visits of Indian Navy ships to Egypt. In June 2022, the Indian Navy’s largest destroyer, INS Kochi, visited Port Safaga in Egypt.4 INS Kochi also participated in a maritime partnership exercise with the Egyptian Navy.

    During the recent visit, the discussion focused on finding ways to enhance military and security cooperation, especially with regard to cooperation in joint manufacturing, transfer, and localisation of technology, with the aim of exploiting the capabilities and infrastructure available in the two countries. In recent years, India has focused on defence indigenisation and co-production through ‘Make in India’ and ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’ (self-reliant India) initiatives over imports from friendly foreign countries.  

    Similarly, Egypt being the oldest and largest defence producer in the Arab world, after a political crisis in 2013, and suspension of US military aid for two years, has attempted to revive indigenous defence production through new co-production initiatives with non-US firms.5 This effort to diversify external partners is mainly to reduce dependence on US firms for procurement and co- production. Moreover, the traditional weapon systems produced by Egypt do not respond to urgent needs to combat terrorism in asymmetric warfare. It appears that Egypt is in search of a reliable partner and feels India fulfils the criteria. Similarly, India perceives Egypt as a reliable strategic partner with a similar independent foreign policy outlook.

    Implications for India–Africa Defence Cooperation

    India’s MoU with Egypt in defence cooperation is the latest agreement signed by India in the African region. India has now signed MoU in defence cooperation with all the littoral states in the Indian Ocean Region, including South Africa, Mozambique, Tanzania, Kenya, Seychelles, Mauritius and Madagascar, as well as with countries such as Nigeria, Uganda, Tanzania, Botswana, Lesotho, etc.6 The range of defence cooperation includes training, peacekeeping, maritime cooperation and defence equipment transfers. Besides Egypt, the Raksha Mantri paid a visit to Mozambique in 2019. In August 2022, he had discussions on improving security ties during the Tanzanian Defence Minister, Dr Stergomena Lawrence Tax’s visit to New Delhi. In 2021, the National Security Advisor (NSA) of Nigeria visited India for the first India–Nigeria Strategic dialogue at the level of NSA. Similarly, India’s Deputy NSA Vivek Misri visited Mozambique and Tanzania, earlier this year, for a dialogue on security issues.

    India’s desire to enhance defence cooperation with Africa is mainly driven by common security challenges such as rise in terrorism, piracy and drug trafficking. Positive developments such as economic transformation of the continent and growing economic and development cooperation of India with Africa in the last two decades also are an important factor. India has developed a cooperative framework of defence cooperation with Africa guided by the principles of SAGAR (Security and Growth for All in the Region) and ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam’ (The world is one family).

    At the same time, several of Africa’s external partners are using defence cooperation as a tool to enhance their relations with the countries in the region. According to Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Russia was the largest supplier of weapons to Africa from 2016 to 2020.7 In recent years, China has upped its activities on security issues with African countries. It hosted the 2nd China–Africa Peace and Security Forum Ministerial meeting in July 2022. The action plan unveiled at the last FOCAC meeting at Dakar, Senegal in November 2021, highlighted the growing security cooperation between African countries and China.8 At the same time, there is growing realisation in Africa that Beijing’s terms of engagement are less than desirable. This has given India a window of opportunity to enhance its cooperation with the region.

    An important development during the recent visit was Rajnath Singh’s invitation to his Egyptian counterpart to the India–Africa Defence Dialogue, scheduled to be held as part of 12th DefExpo at Gandhinagar, Gujarat from 18 to 22 October 2022. The first India–Africa Defence Dialogue was held in February 2020 on the sidelines of DefExpo 2020. India has now institutionalised the dialogue to be held every two years along with the DefExpo.9 The Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA) is the knowledge partner for the event. Through this meeting, India hopes to enhance partnership with African countries. There is also an expectation that the meeting will give a fillip to India’s defence exports to the region. However, unlike Egypt, a large number of African countries do not have the capacity to purchase these equipment and are dependent on lines of credit from India to facilitate these defence exports. Nevertheless, African countries are diversifying their sources of defence imports and consider India as a trustworthy defence partner.

    In conclusion, it can be said that the importance of Africa in India's foreign policy is visible from the increasing number of high-level visits from both sides. It is hoped that Indian Defence Minister’s visit to Egypt will concretise India–Africa defence cooperation which focuses on empowering African countries through training, capacity-building, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Manohar Parrrikar IDSA or of the Government of India.