Indian President Ram Nath Kovind visited Africa this month, stopping in Djibouti and Ethiopia to sign agreements for greater Indo-African economic cooperation. India has a centuries-old relationship with Africa, which is sustained by trade across the Indian Ocean. Overtime the bond between India and Africa weakened. With the Indian president’s recent visit however it seems the Modi government will perhaps refocus its foreign policy to intensifying India’s diplomatic and economic profile in the continent. This may have to do with China’s already expanding security profile and economic footprint in Africa. India and China are competing for resources and energy to fuel their developmental needs at home. But when it comes to Africa India seems to be far behind China.
So far, India has failed to create a united front in its advances. China, on the other hand, is known to have well-coordinated government agencies working on expanding Chinese influence in the region. Most notably, the Djibouti naval base was China’s first military base abroad. China’s agreement with Djibouti guarantees its military presence in the country up until 2026, with a contingent of up to 10,000 soldiers. The position of the naval base on the northwestern edge of the Indian Ocean irked India from the beginning. Owing to China’s rise in present-day geopolitics, India has become increasingly wary of its diplomatic and economic endeavors. For many observers China setting up its naval base underlined its mounting security profile in Africa.
Fortunately for India, sharing a similar history with Africa in terms of its colonial legacy has also partly led a lot of African nations to welcome Indian presence in the region; Djibouti is known to have assisted India in 2015 at the time of evacuation from Yemen and Ethiopia is the largest known recipient of India’s concessional Lines of Credit.
With the India-Africa summit in 2015, the Modi government made a commitment to step up engagement with Africa. India has extensive investment in the region. It is the fifth largest country investing in Africa; bilateral trade is expected to reach $117 billion by 2021. It has provided more than $1 billion in technical assistance and training to personnel under the Indian Technical and Economic Cooperation (ITEC) program. Presently, India has ensured $7.5 billion worth of investment to African infrastructure, covering 137 projects in more than 40 countries. Additionally, India has offered duty-free market access to Africa’s least developed countries.
India wants to establish a partnership based on ‘development’ and capacity building. Rural development and agriculture, energy, education and skill development, regional connectivity and quality of life are some areas of focus for New Delhi in the region.
India has worked to set itself apart from the traditional donors of foreign aid in Africa. China was recently censured in the media for throwing its weight behind capacity building models which proved highly exploitative in nature. Chinese business houses have come under fire for the harsh treatment of African workers and for exploiting local resources.
Indian businesses are much better incorporated into African societies and Indian companies are known to also encourage technology transfer to African partners. The government of India has taken significant steps to boost trade ties and sign MoUs with African nations.
The framework forged for the future of bilateral cooperation at the conclusion of the India-African summit and India’s own efforts to scale up investment is indicative of India’s designs for the future of the India-Africa partnership. For the US, India is the more reliable partner compared to China in terms of tackling Africa-related issues.
Yet, owing to China’s existing and comparatively much greater stakes, an Indo-China competition in Africa may still exist only in name. Nonetheless, the fact that two of the world’s greatest powers are scrambling for influence over the continent still holds true. Beijing pouring financial and military aid to secure oilfields in Africa to a large degree in the past compromised Indian presence in the region. Presently, Beijing sees New Delhi as challenging its diplomatic and economic clout. The president choosing to make Africa the first destination of his overseas visit has redefined Africa’s place in India’s foreign policy matrix and has signaled India’s plans to perhaps reorient its foreign policy focus in the region.