India in Africa: The elephant and the dragon

Peter Guest

Independent India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, regarded Africa as a sister continent to his own, united by a shared history of colonialism and independence struggle. In a world that was dividing itself along ideological lines, he saw solidarity among the emerging nations that were at last gaining the ability to determine their own futures and work towards mutual peace and development.

Credit: UN Photo/Milton Grant

His spirit is often invoked today, but behind a modern continuation of Nehru’s politics of non-alignment and ‘positive neutralism’ is a complex mix of geopolitics and stra­tegic realities with commercially driven pragmatism. India’s desire to engage with Africa is undimmed, but domestic pres­sures, and an apparent confusion in the for­mulation of its strategy, has led to it falling behind its largest regional rival, China.

After the end of the Cold War, and as the influence of the Soviet Union began to wane in India’s politics, the economy be­gan to liberalise and the country began to look for new ways to express itself on the world stage. In the mid-to-late 1990s, that meant looking towards Africa, in particular to fulfil the burgeoning energy needs of a growing, urbanising population.

“I wouldn’t say it was a coherent Africa strategy,” says Sanusha Naidu, research di­rector at the South African Foreign Policy Initiative. “I would say it was more driven by the private sector. Subsequently, who is driving the engagement between India and Africa? It’s the Indian private sector that comes together under platforms like the Confederation of Indian Industry or the Federation of Indian Chambers of Com­merce and Industry.”

While there is no doubt that the private sector is the most visible manifestation of the Indian presence in Africa, the past few years have seen a dramatic change of ap­proach by the Indian state, with the lead taken by the prime minister, Dr Manmohan Singh, himself. He has visited Africa seven times over the past seven years.

The most significant visit was in May 2011, when Dr Singh, accompanied by a large entourage of ministers and busi­nessmen, attended the second Africa-In­dia Summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, the headquarters of the African Union. This was the largest ever gathering of Indian and African leaders on African soil. Dr Singh pledged $5 billion worth of soft loans over three years, and $1 billion support for education, training and railways.

Stating that Africa was emerging as the new growth pole of the world, Dr Singh added, “The current international economic and political situation is far from favour­able, particularly for developing countries. Even as the global economy is recovering from the economic crisis, fresh political up­heavals are taking place. The world faces new challenges in assuring food and energy security. Global institutions of governance are outmoded and under stress.

“We therefore need a new spirit of soli­darity among developing countries. We must recognise that in this globalised age we all live interconnected lives in a small and fragile planet. We must work together to uplift the lives of our people in a manner that preserves the sustainability of our com­mon air, land and water.”

This sentiment, implying genuine part­nership with Africa, has gone down well, particularly in East Africa with its long his­torical connections with the subcontinent. A series of bilateral projects in education, ICT, food processing, textiles, agriculture and transport infrastructure, announced during the summit, has been equally wel­comed.

While critics have complained that In­dia’s direct political engagement in recent years – composed of smaller-scale, seem­ingly disparate initiatives that trail in the wake of the huge infrastructure projects and grand gestures coming from Beijing – appears to lack an overarching strategy, it does offer a friendlier alternative to China’s more muscular approach.

This, in part, Naidu says, is due to the necessity to layer on the strategy ex post facto, a strategic element to their engage­ment, taking in economic development and energy – and national security.

This is not easy to do, and comes with considerable risks. While Indian companies – particularly those in the health care, phar­maceutical, agriculture and transport sec­tors – can offer considerable developmental benefits to their host countries, the potential for corporate missteps reflecting badly on the government is high.

Its diaspora has also given the private sector at least strong links into the East African community. However, it is diver­sifying, looking to the hydrocarbon econ­omies of West Africa and deepening ties with Ethiopia, where it is both a diplomatic partner and a major investor. It was telling, Naidu notes, how quick New Delhi was to offer condolences on the death of the Ethio­pian prime minister, Meles Zenawi, earlier this year.

India’s attempts to widen its diplomatic presence will inevitably be compared to that of its Asian rival, China, which since the turn of the millennium has embarked on a massive, coordinated programme of com­mercial, economic and diplomatic engage­ment. This in turn has precipitated consid­erable hand-wringing in Western capitals, and also in New Delhi.

“It has always been the context of In­dia’s emergence in Africa, that it seems to be following in China’s footprint,” Naidu believes. “Analysts have said that China’s resource strategy is being emulated by the Indians. China set up the Forum on China- Africa Cooperation, the Indians set up the Africa-India Forum Summit in 2008. There seems to be an interesting dynamic of, per­haps, the elephant chasing the dragon’s tail.”

In some areas, India’s interest is nakedly for the acquisition of strategic minerals, such as uranium, to be used in its civilian nuclear programme. Indian companies have also invested heavily in coal and iron ore.

“What is interesting is that they moved into Namibia, Niger. But what we don’t re­ally get out of the relationship between In­dia and Africa is the backlash, as is the case in China,” Naidu adds.

“In a way, I think India likes to play in the shadows, because as long as China is in the spotlight, China is getting all the attention, China is getting all the criticisms.”

As the country’s interests in the natural re­sources sector in Africa increase, and as its companies take a greater role in agriculture, including the politically sensitive issues of land rights which that entails, the chance of the focus shifting on to India grows.

Sometimes the rivalry between the two is very much in the open. When Chinese President Hu Jintao visited the Seychelles in 2007, beginning a pattern of overtures to the Indian Ocean islands that New Delhi has long considered its backyard, it caused considerable introspection in India.

The Indian Ocean remains the transit route for the majority of the country’s en­ergy resources. Somali piracy has spread across the region, causing concerns for the safety of shipping, while China’s explicit strategy of building a chain of military outposts – the so-called ‘string of pearls’ – stretching all the way to Africa has placed it in direct competition with India.

“Hu Jintao was really putting himself about when he was visiting the Seychelles and Mauritius. China was building airports, setting up special economic zones off the Seychelles, and that impelled India to buck up its ideas,” says Gerard McCann, a lec­turer in modern history at the University of York and an expert in India’s engagement with the developing world.

“I remember this memorable quote from a general I met in Delhi, who said that the Indian Ocean used to be India’s Ocean,” he continues. “It was assumed that this was In­dia’s backyard. But this competitiveness has developed. In 2004 or so, they came up with a new maritime doctrine, bucked up their ideas and became more interventionist.”

As a result, India ramped up its rhetoric of cooperation in the region, working with both the US and South African navies. “Two years ago, China made a contribution of a few hundred thousand dollars into the Indian Ocean Rim Association [for Regional Coop­eration] and wanted to become an observer member, and suddenly you had this flurry of activity around an association that had for a long time been pretty much moribund,” says Elizabeth Sidiropoulos, director of the South African Institute of International Affairs.

“China recognised the Indian Ocean as being absolutely critical to its own energy security… India has been in a bit of a re­sponsive, reactive mode, and they’ve real­ised that if they don’t do something, they’re going to have the Chinese with bases a couple of hundred nautical miles from their borders.”

India’s engagement with East Africa will, by necessity, increasingly take on a com­ponent of naval security, Sidiropoulos be­lieves. However, the issue of it reacting to China, rather than proactively formulating and articulating an Africa strategy, means that India risks falling further behind.

Where China has succeeded and India has struggled is in the creation of a narra­tive. Chinese investment and trade offered African nations what many were looking for in a seemingly unipolar world – an al­ternative. In other words, financing with few strings attached and a clear develop­mental example.

“[China’s] narrative was a unified and coherent one. It was about mutual benefit, it was about China as a developing coun­try working together with other developing countries to realise developmental objec­tives,” Sidiropoulos explains. “African states certainly believed that they could learn from the Chinese experience… and what they’ve achieved over 30 years, clear­ly that’s a very compelling narrative. It is a compelling narrative not only in terms of the economics, but also because of the ideological and anti-colonial factors.

“You don’t hear the narrative around Af­rica of how India is changing the way that development is happening in the way that you would about China.”

However, that narrative may be starting to fray, as concerns grow over the role of Chinese trade in the de-industrialisation of African economies, she adds.

However, India has also been less suc­cessful in injecting itself into a leadership position in global debates. Whereas China has laboured to position itself at the fore­front of a developing markets bloc, India’s role has been more muted, even in smaller groupings, such as the newly formalised BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) association of leading emerg­ing countries.

Financial clout may have some part in it, but the Nehru-era rhetoric of solidar­ity among the ‘Global South’, which India pursued in a large part through the Non- Aligned Movement, seems to be less se­ductive than China’s more forceful, almost confrontational approach to South-South partnerships.

“I would see it in the context of how the appreciation of India’s national interests have changed, largely also brought on af­ter the end of the Cold War,” Sidiropoulos says. In light of developments within its subcontinent, and of a nuclear rapproche­ment with the USA, India is less interested in taking on an antagonistic role to counter US and European influences, she suggests.

India’s democracy, too, slows down its decision-making process, which means that despite the smaller scale of its engagement, it is unable to deploy its resources as quick­ly. Those resources are also constrained. China’s current account balance in 2011 was more than $200 billion – India’s was in deficit by $47 billion. India’s engagement is, by necessity, more sensitive to price.

Local interests could also have a lot to do with the loss of focus on Africa. With instability in Afghanistan and Pakistan still weighing heavily on the domestic agenda, more long-term, strategic issues tend to fall by the wayside. “India’s focus over the last couple of years has been its north-west – to Afghani­stan and Pakistan,” Sidiropoulos says. “I think there are some very domestic issues which have created stasis in regards to for­eign relations, particularly vis-à-vis Africa, and I think there are issues in its immediate region that have become, from a national security perspective, far more important. But, of course, it focuses on those at its peril, because it then loses out on strategic opportunities outside.”

About the author:

Peter Guest, the Founder-Editor of Financial Times Limited's This is Africa magazine, is a freelancer specialising in emerging markets


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