An African Affair

India and China are both wooing Africa. There is much we can do to make this a win-win relationship.

Between July 21 and July 25, the Indian and Chinese heads of state wrapped up individual visits to different African countries on their way to Johannesburg for the BRICS Summit. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Rwanda and Uganda, while Chinese President Xi Jinping travelled to Senegal and Rwanda, with a friendly stopover at Mauritius on his way home.

The neatly timed visits grabbed global headlines and eyeballs alike. For many, it is a simple story – of one country playing a game of catch-up with its more powerful neighbor. (There is no need to point out which country is which in this particular story.) This is, of course, a rather simplistic narrative: one that has been downplayed or refuted  by both countries.

In the wake of the summit, the analyses of Modi and Xi’s respective visits have been varied and myriad. For Modi, this was his second trip to the continent, following trips to Mozambique, South Africa, Tanzania and Kenya in 2016. For Xi Jinping, it was in keeping with what has become a tradition for any newly-elected Chinese head of state. This was his first visit to Africa after his re-election as General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, and as President of the People’s Republic of China. More significantly, the visit came just weeks after a bilateral defense forum – the first of its kind – in Beijing.

For both, the agenda has been largely the same – to reinforce cooperation in the fields of defense, security, energy, trade and investment, infrastructure construction and enhancing people-to-people contact. Both countries are also looking to improve geostrategic connectivity, though they are differently named. For China, it is the Belt and Road Initiative, under which both Africa and the Indian Ocean are key regions. For India, it is the much-talked about Project Mausam, as well as Sagarmala, the scheme to improve maritime port connectivity. Within the continent, India also has the Asia-Africa Growth Corridor in the works with Japan. But a deconstruction of individual bilateral agendas aside, it is perhaps of more interest to pay attention to the evolution of India and China’s respective policies in Africa.

The continent is an open strategic arena. Most African economies were hit by a fall in prices in 2016 and are looking desperately for help to industrialise, and to begin moving out of their current economic paradox. For example, Ghana exports cocoa beans to Switzerland, but it imports the chocolates made from those beans. The continent needs help to move in the right direction, by improving connectivity, industries and infrastructure. With the United States currently tying itself in knots on dual fronts – with a trade war with China on the one hand, and ongoing negotiations with its other global economic partners on the other – as well as the fact that the Trump administration never really had a focused policy toward the region, opportunities are plenty. Yet ironically, here is where India and China’s trajectories in the region begin to diverge.

Under Xi Jinping, Beijing’s designs on Africa are three-fold:

  1. To gain economic and political prestige as a strategic partner for African countries.
  2. To increase its military and diplomatic presence on the continent.
  3. To gain African allegiance to its blueprint for global influence.

To this end, China’s goals in Africa have remained the same – increasing resource diplomacy, infrastructure construction, and boosting trade and investment. In Xi’s visit to Rwanda, 15 agreements were inked, the value of which are still unknown. The agreements cover mutual investment in e-commerce, cooperation in civil air transport, law enforcement partnerships and human resource development, along with loans for construction, hospital renovation and the development of Rwanda’s new Bugesera airport. In South Africa, 14.7 billion USD was promised as investment.

Significantly, China is now working on consolidating its image as a provider of security. Its arms exports to Africa have leapfrogged by more than 50% between 2013 and 2017. This is a statistic that includes strategic advice and personnel loans, apart from mere defense procurements. Beijing is working on improving its capability to train personnel as well. New centres have been opened in Tanzania, while training is going on in Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi.

Under Xi, China has magnified its role as a peacekeeping presence, deploying 2400 peacekeepers across the continent and offering 100 million USD to establish a special force to respond to regional crises. It is a cleverly crafted to move to step into what C Raja Mohan has called “law enforcement diplomacy.” This refers to Chinese attempts to market its artificial intelligence technology – crucial for internal security surveillance – across Africa.

Undoubtedly, this does raise the question of where India fits into the African picture. The short answer is: very well. Under Narendra Modi, India’s Africa policy focuses on the following aspects:

  1. Enhancing production capacities and job creation.
  2. Investing in and supporting small-scale enterprises.
  3. Training, imparting skills and knowledge.
  4. Boosting the supply of information technology (IT) to the continent.

New Delhi cannot hope to match or surpass the kind of financial clout that Beijing possesses. But as African economies look to train workers, to improve the benefits of land and raw materials, these aspects of India’s Africa policy make its presence on the continent a welcome one. In addition, most African countries are now looking for enhanced security cooperation. Internal – often vicious – civil wars or military coups, along with widespread piracy off the African coast make security a vital aspect of any kind of bilateral agenda for Africa. Here too, India has done well in terms of its prowess in training peacekeeping personnel, and its solid presence as a peacekeeping force on the continent.

Where New Delhi has failed, however, is of more important consequence. Poor techniques of project identification, the immense amount of red tape involved in the disbursal of funds (which are already sparse compared to the kind of funds Beijing has at its disposal), and a lack of implementation on the ground puts India at a direct disadvantage. India-Africa ties have also been hit by a trade slump – with figures standing at 62 billion USD, whereas China’s figures stand at an enviable 170 billion USD.

Moreover, China has, in the recent past, appeared to listen to African needs. In 2015, Xi promised $10 billion toward a China-Africa industrial capacity cooperation investment fund.In 2016, with Beijing pushing the agenda, the G-20 promised to help Africa achieve its aspirations of industrialization. The recently concluded China-Africa Defense and Security Forum in Beijing saw China promising the 50 attending African leaders definite advancements in technology and much needed support for the modernization of outdated African military forces. While Xi was touring Africa this time, the 5thChina-Africa People’s Forum was held in Chengdu, which discussed how to improve social and cultural contact between the two sides – all the better for Africa to make its voice heard on the world stage.

This is not to say that the Chinese model in Africa has not met with criticism. The Chinese military base in Djibouti has raised local concerns that China will start interfering in internal affairs. The Nairobi-Mombasa railway line, being laid at a staggering cost of 4 billion USD, has buried Kenya in debt. To meet its infrastructural promises, China brings in its own labor, causing local resentment in the African community.

Under Modi, India appears to have recognized the fact that it can no longer rely on cultural and historical ties to consolidate its presence in Africa. It also is working to uplift the geopolitical narrative away from competition, with a definite focus on an individual policy approach. For instance, while the gift of 200 cows to a Rwandan village is in keeping with the current cultural ethos practiced by the BJP government, it is also a clever fit into one of President Kagame’s social programme, in which the poorest families receive cows from the government, and the first female calf born of the cow is gifted to a neighbor. Since Kagame’s idea was to promote brotherhood, the gift of the cows fits very well as a metaphor for the close fraternal relations between the two countries.

In addition, in both Uganda and Rwanda, Modi focused on defense cooperation as a key aspect of his bilateral agenda, though he made sure to focus on India’s benign presence in Africa in his speech to the Ugandan Parliament. These are sure signs that India is working to adapt its existent policy to changing times, and consolidate itself as a reliable partner for African development. It will be vital, however, to prevent its shortcomings from overtaking its advantages on ground.