Our Special Correspondent
New Delhi, Sept. 29: President Ram Nath Kovind will be visiting Ethiopia and Djibouti on his first overseas trips after taking office, his choice of destinations influenced by an increasingly sharp battle between India and China for influence in the Indian Ocean and Africa.
Before Kovind, who will make the trips in the first week of October, no one above the rank of a junior minister has ever visited Djibouti from India.
But the African country, a tiny dot on the map off the Gulf of Aden, has in recent months emerged as a source of deep concern for India, with China's navy opening its first base there earlier this year.
The country sits at the mouth of the Red Sea, and the naval base could in theory allow China to control other countries' maritime access to the region.
"The President recognises that Africa and the Indian Ocean are vital for India's interests, which is why this region has been chosen for his first visit abroad," Kovind's press secretary, Ashok Malik, said while insisting that India's relationship with each nation stands on its own footing.
India, which has under Prime Minister Narendra Modi pitched itself as a net security provider in the Indian Ocean, has stitched together maritime security pacts with Mozambique, Tanzania, South Africa, Seychelles and Mauritius. Ethiopia too is discussing such a pact with India, officials indicated.
Over the past few months, India has also tightened cooperation with other countries to use their joint clout to gain more influence in Africa, where China's trade ties, and now investments, outstrip all others'.
India has over the past decade slowly stepped up collaboration with the US in Africa. Earlier this year, India and Japan too agreed to coordinate their strategies in Africa -- a plan formally approved during Japanese Premier Shinzo Abe's recent India visit. India is also working with the United Arab Emirates in North Africa