India Seeks to Rival China in Africa

The Indian Prime Minister’s visit to Africa has prompted widespread analysis of an escalating strategic competition between the world’s two most populous nations. From The Economist:

For all its elephantine weight, India has long shown mouselike diplomatic clout. Historically, its diplomacy was constrained by poverty at home, fraught relations with neighbours, notably Pakistan and China, and an anxiety to avoid taking sides in the cold war. Even today, its foreign service remains woefully understaffed: both New Zealand and Singapore have more serving diplomats. Now India is trying harder to get noticed ….

As it happens, India’s prime minister, Manmohan Singh, has just spent six days in Africa, along with hordes of Indian ministers and businessmen. An Afro-India summit, the second in three years, with leaders of 15 African countries, produced a surge of shared goodwill. Mr Singh had admirable deeds to point to. India is the third-biggest contributor of UN peacekeepers to the continent, helping clamp down on civil wars in Sudan and Congo. India’s navy chases Somali pirates. And, the prime minister reminded listeners, India’s record of speaking out against apartheid in South Africa was an honourable one.

More striking, Mr Singh promised $5 billion of loans on easy terms over the next three years for Africans willing to trade with India, plus another $1 billion to pay for education, railways and peacekeeping. It is a steep rise in aid and assistance—last year India gave a mere $25m to Africa—and marks a striking shift, especially since India itself is still a big recipient of aid. But Mr Singh wants something in return: African backing for another round of long-stalled efforts to reform the UN Security Council. India craves a permanent seat, and will back an African permanent one, too, probably for South Africa.

The Guardian suggests that India, for now, faces an uphill battle:

Bilateral India-Africa trade has grown from about £620m in 2001 to £28.5bn in 2010. India’s commerce and industry minister, Anand Sharma, hopes it will reach £43bn by 2012. Some 250 Indian companies have invested, mainly in telecommunications and chemical and mining companies.

But India remains about a decade behind its Asian rival. China says its two-way trade stands at £75bn, a 43.5% increase on the previous year, and up from just £620m in 1992. It has built roads, bridges, railways and power stations in return for access to markets and resources.

Brahma Chellaney, professor at the New Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research, told Reuters: “India is massively playing catch-up to China in Africa, and only in recent years is it trying to engage the continent in a serious way. But it is trying to build political and economic ties, and position itself as different to China, which has acquired the image of being a new imperial power.”

India is widely perceived as relatively benign, but the contrast is inevitably not black and white:

… like China before it, India has been criticised for turning a blind eye to human rights abuses and corruption. Its state-owned oil company has invested in Sudanese oil, and New Delhi avoided criticising the Khartoum government at the height of the Darfur crisis.

While there is considerable overlap between the two countries’ offerings, India takes pains to emphasise areas such as healthcare and information technology. From the Indian Express:

If it’s China’s construction prowess that gives it a foothold in Africa, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s six-day trip to the continent sought to differentiate India’s long-term strategic offering for Africa’s many small states — helping them gain expertise in a range of services from education to healthcare and information technology ….

“China helped build a 200-bed hospital in Dar-es-Salaam and India is helping train our doctors in specialised areas of open-heart surgery and renal diseases,” [Tanzanian President Jakaya] Kikwete said at a joint press conference with Singh today ….

Besides healthcare and agriculture, Singh said, India is ready to provide all the help it can to enable Tanzania create a pool of world-class IT professionals.

“If we can produce a steady stream of highly trained scientists, technologists and engineers, our cooperation would be worthwhile and we would be putting our money to good use,” he said inaugurating a Communication and Information Technology Centre of Excellence in the capital city.

The Los Angeles Times notes that, whatever the differences between the two rivals, real benefits from their involvement will depend ultimately on local factors:

Africa isn’t exactly complaining about the attention.

“Africa enjoys this very much,” said Alex Vines, head of the Africa program at London’s Chatham House, a think tank. “It can negotiate a better deal, particularly knowing that India and China are involved.”

In China’s favor, it got a head start and has significantly more money to work with. Africa’s trade with China was about three times its trade with India in 2010: $127 billion versus $40 billion. The gap is expected to widen by 2015.

India may have certain soft-power advantages, including its Bollywood film industry as well as widespread English fluency and a history of living under British colonial rule that it shares with many African countries. There is also a significant Indian diaspora in Africa ….

Just how much Africa can gain from its suitors remains to be seen, analysts said.

“In the end, it depends on good African governments to get good deals for its people,” said Vine of Chatham House. “That gets back to the major challenge for Africa: governance and corruption.”


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