China Factor in India- Africa Relations
Amb Anil Trigunayat, Distinguished Fellow, VIF

When I think of China in Africa I am reminded of my very first diplomatic assignment in Ivory Coast (Cote d’Ivoire) in the early 1980s. There were two diplomatic missions with whom we did not have diplomatic relations or any contacts one was the Israeli interest section in the Belgian embassy and the other was the Taiwan Embassy. But I had the opportunity of meeting both a few times in different gatherings within a few months of my arrival and was impressed by their quiet but impressive outreach. However, less than a year later the Ivorian government was cajoled and forced to close Taipei mission and the big Chinese embassy was opened. But they reaped the benefit of commercial outreach that the Taiwanese had created. I saw the same happening in Chad and elsewhere. During the last four decades China’s presence in Africa has become all too pervasive. I tried my best to get India to gift only one tractor but could not succeed for three years and lost a big business opportunity. South Korean Ambassador presented 100 tractors even before presenting credentials. Perhaps we thought of it as a far-offcountry, I guess. But this was instructive.

We have had a diplomatic presence and our rather influential diaspora in Africa much before the Chinese focussed approach and delivery mechanisms with large scale infra projects including symbolic edifice of football stadiums, foreign office buildings, health care facilities, gifting of motorbikes and tractors in large numbers in exchange for access to and monopoly over rich local resources gave them the edge over the colonial powers tutelage. It was decried eventually as Cheque book diplomacy and blatant neo-colonialism but I guess it is a case of sour grapes for the erstwhile colonial masters whose only objective was to exploit the natural resources and treat the locals with disdain.

In recent times China’s chips in Africa went down due to racial incidents and abuses against Africans. One of the biggest charges and grudge against China has been that it does not empower the locals. When it undertakes a project even labour is brought from China and kept in their own communes. The increasing disenchantment with Debt Trap could also become China’s own nemesis.

China, having been a part of the Non Aligned Movement (NAM), took credit for their emancipation from the colonial bondage in many countries and developed close venal ties with many leaders and influential personalities. They started the China-Africa Forum Summits (FOCAC) in 2000 where majority of the leaders participate, and big announcements are made. This mechanism has been followed by many countries like India, Japan, Russia, UK, US etc. During the Covid pandemic President Xi Jinping held a Virtual Extraordinary Summit in June 2020 reiterating their early medical support and assistance and assured that Chinese vaccine will be a global good and that the African countries will be the first to benefit from their vaccine. At the much-maligned WHO, for the Chinese connection, Beijing had agreed to provide US$200 million in assistance to Africa for fighting the virus and agreed to suspend the debt repayments of many African countries. It has also joined India to ask WHO to help waive IPR conditionalities on the vaccines so that these could be produced and made available to the poor and the needy at the earliest. Hence, it may have set a template to preserve its constituency and became the envy of the “Gold Diggers”. We may like or dislike the Chinese, but the dragon is present in every global strategic calculation. It is no coincidence that for decades the Chinese Foreign Minister’s first visit in the beginning of the year has been to the continent. They have reaped the benefit in securing African support for the Chinese in the international organisations.

China is also changing its perception management style and taking more recourse to investments and joint ventures while writing off several unrecoverable loans and debt. This was clearly evidenced during the 7th Forum on China -Africa Cooperation Summit (FOCAC) held in Beijing on September 3-4, 2018 where 53 African Heads of States participated. It committed to $60 bn is assistance and loans. They underscored the synergy between the BRI, Agenda 2063 and UN’s Agenda 2030 for sustainable development. In keeping with its futuristic engagement China announced a financial package of $60 billion for next three years which might support the existing and newer areas of cooperation especially in industrial promotion, capacity building, infrastructure and connectivity as well as social development among others. But former US NSA John Bolton, accused China of wielding “bribes, opaque agreements, and the strategic use of debt to hold states in Africa captive to Beijing’s wishes and demands.” But many African leaders don’t buy it precisely because of trust deficit with the west and continued presence and systematic ingress by the Chinese in a composite manner.

Africa has also changed and wants to be on its own too. How the rest of the world wishes to align with them will be broadly but not exclusively decided by the Africans themselves. In this context India’s policy and approach has much greater probability of success given its benign approach and firm stand on behalf of the Africans in the global fora and international organisation as a champion of South- South Cooperation. Its non-obtrusive and “share and care’ approach matches the Afritude. But have we been able to eke out the tangible benefits of the tremendous goodwill for India remains debatable? Africa has also acquired strategic importance for India in its energy security, maritime domain, anti-piracy and even in the Indo-Pacific calculations and expanse branching out from the Indian Ocean Region. We must also give due attention to the Gulf of Guinea through joint surveillance and security mechanisms. Even though we are the late comers, the SAGAR strategy of India should be able to counter the negative impact of BRI and “String of Pearls Strategy” if carried out with precision and political resolve.

India has an umbilical relationship with Africa. Its diaspora is industrious and broadly liked and have generated tremendous, good will. Former Nigerian President Obasanjo often told me that “Indians were the second largest employers of Nigerians after the Federal Government and he knew India better that I did”. It is in direct contrast to what China does. One of the biggest concerns of African leaders was that Indian leadership barely visited the continent which was seen as arrogance on their part as the early leadership post colonial era held Indians always in high esteem for their overt support for their emancipation. Moreover, India’s capacity building assistance across the spectrum was highly appreciated and even created various India educated and trained leaders. Contributions of Indian mathematics and science teachers was often fondly acknowledged by the African leaders. I recall President Yar’Adua often asking about his teacher- one Dr Singh. He also mentioned it to former PM Dr. Man Mohan Singh during the latter’s visit to Abuja. Although we have engaged with Africa often in an ad-hoc manner in the past, but this is changing now. India’s Covid assistance to Africa and other developing and developed countries and its quest for an affordable and equitable distribution of the Vaccine is vastly appreciated by the Africans.

We have a cogent Africa policy now whose essence is ‘Africa for Africans”. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, while speaking at the Parliament in Kampala in July 2018 outlined his Africa vision through his ten guiding principles which include : Africa is among top priorities for India and momentum of cooperation will be sustained through regular exchanges ;development partnership as per African priorities; preferential access to Indian markets for African products; assist in harnessing digital revolution in Africa ; improve Africa’s agriculture potential; fight climate change together; work together to keep oceans and maritime lanes free for all; Africa instead of becoming a theatre of competition should become nursery for its youth; and aspire and work together for a just, representative, democratic global order. These are ideal, achievable, and collaborative policies that dictate a paradigm shift compared to other big powers who are trying to get into the ‘Gold Rush’ for exploitation by way of neo-colonialist approaches.

The high-level visits deficit has been abridged as more than 34 visits at the level of President, Vice President and Prime Minister, let alone scores of ministerial visits, have taken place in last 5 years to the continent. The commitments made during the last India -Africa Forum Summit (3rd IAFS) have broadly been fulfilled when US$ 10 billion in Lines of Credit, $600 million in grants and 50000 fully funded scholarships were committed. It seems the Government is addressing the scary gaps in commitment and delivery mechanisms as newer areas of collaboration is being worked out and could be unveiled in the 4th IAFS. As more diplomatic missions are being opened our outreach is bound to increase. However, special steps are to be taken to devise new financial mechanisms; community welfare programmes; education and capacity building; competitive initiatives in agriculture and food security in concert with other countries and most importantly any racial incident against Africans in India must be dealt with an exemplary manner. The strategic choices for mutual security that we make must be in tandem with the African perception of their own security and developmental agenda. Of course we must be re-focussing on African countries and reach out in the bilateral, trilateral, sub -regional, regional, and multilateral formats.

China is a reality to contend with, but India has what China does not possess as of now. That is implicit trust of the Africans and we must not belie that. India-Africa collaboration has the inherent potential of defining partnership for an Afro-Asian century. How do we play it out will decide the future trajectory? Meanwhile, China will remain a reference point for other external stake holders in Africa including India. It has shown us what to do and how not to do it! However, the most disastrous approach would be to gloat on Chinese failures or criticisms in Africa rather than creating our own substantive and positive narratives, since it is not a zero-sum game.

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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