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ARGENTINA | 03-06-2023 06:15

India supports Argentina’s bid to join BRICS, says ambassador

India’s envoy in Argentina, Dinesh Bhatia, discusses trade deficits, defence opportunities, lithium and gas collaboration and the importance of cultural ties.

Installed in Buenos Aires for almost four years now, Dinesh Bhatia, India’s ambassador to Argentina and Uruguay has helped to rejuvenate bilateral relations during his time in the region – and he has high hopes for what comes next.

Over a cup of chai tea at India’s Embassy in Buenos Aires – located on the 19th floor of a modern skyscraper in Puerto Madero – the envoy reflected on his experiences thus far in Argentina and his hopes for expanded cooperation between the two nations in an extended interview.  Despite the 16,000 miles of land and sea between them, there are great similarities between both nations, said Bhatia.

“The best part of Argentina is that people are very independent thinking. They are like Indians basically in their temperament, in their character,” the ambassador told the Times.

These shared traits extend from social to political life. “For me, Argentina is, in terms of population, a miniature of India. In terms of politics, it’s as vibrant as India,” Bhatia continued.

Shared priorities and perspectives have helped the envoy better navigate the complex field of Argentine politics. “We understand each other much more easily. For instance, [if] a European ambassador comes here, he or she finds it difficult to understand because Argentina’s a very vibrant democracy. Same as India,” the envoy explained.

In finding common ground and a united mission, Bhatia has been able to push forward greater bilateral collaboration.

“What I see in the last three years and nine months since I’ve been here is that there’s a great desire in Argentina to progress,” he began. “And that I think brings us close again because India is also in the same boat. We have a great desire to progress fast.”

Further collaboration between the two nations, through the pooling of their mutual resources, appears only natural to Bhatia.

“Indian-Argentine companies can work together to do projects, commercial projects, in Latin America because we have economical manpower, and Argentina has the know-how,” he declared.

 

Trade on the rise

When Bhatia first arrived in 2019, annual trade between Argentina and India added up to US$3 billion. That figure has since more than doubled, hitting US$6.4 billion last year.

“It’s a matter of great satisfaction personally for me that trade is doing well and this year too, I don’t see the trade coming down because we require Argentine oils and Argentina requires many things from us,” the ambassador said with pride.

Of last year’s commercial ties, a whopping US$4.4 billion is entirely made up of Argentine exports. Historically, India has maintained a substantial trade deficit with Argentina, totalling some US$18 billion dollars in the past decade alone.

Argentina is the primary importer of soybean oil and now, given barriers of access to Ukraine oil due to the war, of sunflower oil to India.

In return, the South American country imports everything from chemicals to textiles to motorcycles. Just last month, Royal Enfield, an Indian brand, launched its newest model of motorcycle in Buenos Aires.

A few Indian IT companies have also begun to branch out into Argentina. “What has happened is that because of the language difference a lot of these companies, Indian companies, have local manpower including their top managers,” the ambassador told the Times.

There is also potential growth in areas such as defence. India, alongside China and the United States, has put in an offer for a tender of fighter jets for Argentina’s Air Force.

“What all I know from my government interlocutor is that we are in the race,” Bhatia stated, playing his cards close to his chest.

The Indian model, supersonic aircrafts called Tejas, have already been evaluated by Argentine technician teams who found them satisfactory.

“Argentina has to define its own requirements and we have given them the offer they’re evaluating it they’re evaluating other offers,” Bhatia explained.

India has been a significant importer of defence technologies for decades, but in the last few years, defence exports have been rising too.

“We have a government company called HAL Hindustan Aeronautics Limited, which is the manufacturer of all these products,” the envoy highlighted.

Outside of the fighter aircrafts, Indian government officials have discussed potential helicopter sales. “We have interest and we are willing to collaborate, in all possible ways, to work together with Argentine industry,” Bhatia clarified.

India, despite being one of the greatest producers of pharmaceuticals in the world, imports very few of such goods to Argentina.

“India is very economical in pharmaceutical production, so importing from India will help Argentina bring down the cost of medicines in the country, especially imported medicines,” Bhatia hypothesised.

“The only thing is that the import regulations for pharmaceuticals of Argentina do not favour India as much as they do many other countries. That’s a subject of discussion between the governments, but there is a huge potential in pharmaceuticals,” New Delhi's envoy continued.

In the past, India has been able to send pharmaceuticals, in the form of vaccines, to Argentina. During the coronavirus pandemic, India supplied a batch of 580,000 vaccines based on the AstraZeneca jab.

 

New developments

From space to nuclear development, Indo-Argentine bodies have formed a number of specialised joint committees to improve collaboration at the inter-governmental level.

The implementation of virtual meetings during the pandemic has made way for increased, regular contact. Where previously experts would have to spend days in travel just to convene on a committee, now collaboration is just a quick phone call away.

In February, the two Ministries of Science and Technology signed a new programme of cooperation to expand collaboration in these fields.

Space collaboration is another touchpoint between the two nations. India, one of the nations responsible for launching the most satellites with almost 385 sent on behalf of about 40 nations, launched a satellite for Argentina way back in 2007.

“It’s a very very healthy development. The last meeting was just about three weeks back. Argentina wants to collaborate with us, wants to learn from our space programme,” the diplomat revealed.

Back on Earth, lithium is another area of rising interest. A mining cooperation agreement was signed between the two nations in August last year and Bhatia is now working, at the corporate level, to entice Indian companies to invest in Argentine minerals.

Outside of lithium, energy deals revolving around oil and gas also appear promising to Bhatia.

“Argentina is huge in oil and gas. There, again, we have interest. We have been talking. I hope in the future we’ll be able to work together. I’m very keen that Indian companies come here and invest in energy as well as mining and we work together with Argentine companies,” the ambassador said.

Bhatia has worked to bring Argentina’s state energy firm YPF to the table for talks with OVL, ONGC Videsh Limited, an Indian energy corporation. The two companies signed a cooperation agreement in February to begin collaboration on concrete projects.

“We have investments all over and we are keen to invest in Argentina,” he stated.

Since the United Nations crowned India, with over 1.4 billion citizens, the most populous nation in the world last April, speculation about the nation’s growing economic power has intensified. The median age in India is currently about 28, less than the global average, meaning it’s a nation filled with young workers with potential.

To ease the way for increasing populations, the government has put together a number of programmes, including the “Make in India” campaign which seeks to encourage more national-based production in order to increase jobs.

Digital growth has also transformed India’s marketplace. “In India, we are the pioneers in digital payments. The advantage is that the cost of business goes down,” Bhatia explained.

The Embassy has expressed interest in bringing digital payment programmes that have been so successful in India to Argentina.

“We have been talking to various stakeholders in Argentina to bring the same technology because it will bring down the cost drastically. In India, for instance, you go to a kiosk. That cost of transaction is maybe point zero for one person. It’s negligible because the platform comes at a negligible cost,” Bhatia stated.

On the sidelines of the bustling G20 meetings that have been held across India, this year’s host country, Argentine and Indian officials have found the time to seek each other out for one-on-one conversations.

In March, Foreign Minister Santiago Cafiero spoke with his Indian counterpart at the G20 Foreign Ministers Meeting.

“We are having good discussions at various levels and we are expecting many more ministers to travel this year,” Bhatia shared.

On the international stage, India and Argentina have a common interest as leaders in the global south.

“Argentina is among the pioneers of South-South cooperation, along with India. In fact, India launched the process of cooperation way back in 1955 with the Bandung conference in Malaysia. And Argentina took the lead way back in 1978 when they organised a BAPA conference, Buenos Aires Plan of Action,” Bhatia described.

“Both the countries not only collaborate in South-South cooperation at various forums, but also in G20 as a group of emerging economies where again India and Argentina are both members and they collaborate,” he continued.

Argentina has also expressed interest in joining the BRICS group — a powerful economic force of emerging nations made up of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa.

“Once they take a decision and define the parameters, the countries which are keen to join BRICS will be surely invited for discussions,” explained the envoy. “As far as Argentina’s desire to join BRICS is concerned, India has extended the support.”

 

A little history

At the local level, the Indian population in Argentina remains relatively small, limited to the thousands – unsurprising given the thousands of miles and transportational challenges roadblocking two nations. Yet, despite the small numbers, a healthy Indian community can still be found in the corners of the capital.

Bhatia told me the story of the first Indian family in Argentina, passed on to him by Argentine politicians.

“I’ve seen the picture myself,” he shared with a proud smile, “the first family which has been spotted in Argentina from India was way back in 1876.”

The family, originating from the Indian state of Punjab, moved to the province of Jujuy to work on the ferrocarriles, th Argentina’s railways. British companies, responsible for establishing these railways, recruited Indian engineers and construction workers with appropriate experience.

Following the footsteps of those original families, streams of Indians have trickled into Argentina, particularly after World War I in the 1920s and 1930s when other nations, such as the United States and Canada, denied access to Indians.

Small communities of these immigrant groups exist to this day in the provinces of Salta, Jujuy, and Tucumán.

“Not more than about a thousand people, [a] very small community, but they stayed back and they’re very integrated into the local society by intermarriages,” Bhatia described.

“I know many of them, of course, and they have an Indian temple, Gurdwara, in a city called Rosario De La Frontera, in the province of Salta,” the father-of-two continued.

The next wave of immigrants to land in Argentina came in the last 40 years, bringing small and medium-sized businesses along with them.

“We have a good size of Sindhi and Punjabi community in Buenos Aires and I would estimate the number to be about 1,500,” Bhatia described.

The number could be set to grow: in the wake of the pandemic, a new demographic of Indians have begun to move to Argentina.

“After the pandemic, the number is going up again. Many multinationals bring young techies from India, technocrats from India,” the ambassador explained.

Ambassador Bhatia is also aware of the importance of soft power. The embassy will soon be hosting an event on June 20, in honour of International Yoga Day, just one of many community outreach programmes. 

“Irrespective of the small Indian community, the respect for India and goodwill for India is very high. Perhaps one of the reasons is the attraction for yoga here. The penetration of yoga and meditation in Argentina is incredible,” Bhatia explained.

Part of the diplomat's talent for reaching out to local communities stems from his Spanish skills.

“It’s very important for a mission like ours to speak the local language which in my case, fortunately, I do. I do speak Spanish. If you know the local language, you can reach out to anybody in Argentina,” he explained.

Bhatia has begun dialogue with people across Argentine society with the goal of expanding relations.

“I know everybody here. I’ve made an effort to reach out to everybody and people are very happy to work with us because India enjoys a tremendous amount of goodwill,” he shared.

Although strides have been made since he first arrived in 2019, Bhatia has grand goals for the expansion of cooperation in the future.

“We are pushing things gradually, with a very small team in the Embassy, but we are doing well. I think we’re going the right direction and all these things in diplomacy, they take time. You can’t expect results overnight,” Bhatia concluded.

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