India and China: A scramble for Africa?

Africa is big enough for both, but there is a risk that the rivalry between China and India could play out to the detriment of African interests.

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China’s presence in Africa as an investor and trading partner increased significantly from the early 2000s, as its economic rise rapidly increased the country’s demand for natural resources. According to UNEP, “China's per capita consumption of materials grew from one third to over one and a half times the world's average levels” from 1970 to 2008, and Africa provides much of this supply.

But China’s role in Africa has evolved in recent years and is no longer solely focused on natural resource extraction. It is also diversifying its investment and even begun to play a role as a security provider, taking part in United Nations (UN) peacekeeping missions. However, China’s pre-eminent role in Africa has come to be challenged, at least in some areas, since Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power in India.

Modi is the first Indian leader since Rajiv Gandhi in the late 1980s to take a serious interest in Africa. Former Foreign Secretary Lalit Mansingh, who served as high commissioner in Nigeria in the ’90s, tells ECFR the manifest reasons for this engagement: “The focus on Africa reflects the new priorities of our foreign policy, it is part of Modi’s drive to raise growth rates in India and he realises the importance of African countries in making it possible, we need oil, minerals, metals, food items, all sorts of raw materials.” But he also addresses the elephant in the room when it comes to India’s relationship with Africa: “An important factor for the current government is clearly China, that it has marched ahead in a continent we thought was ours by tradition. I think it came as a shock for India.”

“An important factor for the current government is clearly China, that it has marched ahead in a continent we thought was ours by tradition. I think it came as a shock for India.”

China in Africa

China is Africa’s largest trading partner and the continent is also its largest source of imports. China mostly exports manufactured products to Africa, such as textiles, electronics, and machinery, and imports mostly oil, but also metals such as iron and copper. David Dollar writes in his recent study on Africa that China has provided about one-sixth of the external infrastructure financing for the continent so far. According to official Chinese figures gathered by the John Hopkins University, around 250,000 Chinese worked in African countries in 2014, though informal figures suggest the real number may be as high as one million.

Major state-owned Chinese companies have focussed their investments in energy (such as the oilfields in South Sudan), in African mining (with over $100-billion invested by the end of 2014), in infrastructure (such as the $13.8 billion railway in East Africa) and manufacturing (such as in labour intensive garment manufacturing in Ethiopia or Rwanda.

But Dollar notes that there are also increasing numbers of small- and medium-sized Chinese enterprises that invest in Africa, mostly in service sectors such as telecommunications. China’s largest telecommunication companies, Huawei and ZTE, already partnered with South Africa’s MTN, which operates in more than 20 African countries. Recently, China’s most popular mobile messaging platform WeChat, an upgraded Chinese version of WhatsApp, entered the e-commerce market in Africa.

Africa is the biggest recipient of China’s foreign aid, which amounted to roughly $30 billion from 2000 to 2013. This mostly took the form of concessional loans for large-scale infrastructure projects – a common practice in Chinese foreign aid policy. While many African countries have benefited from Chinese investment and aid, China’s actions have attracted significant criticism internationally as well as within Africa. Complaints range from Chinese companies underbidding local firms and not hiring Africans, to poor compliance with safety and environmental standards, to fuelling conflict. An ECFR policy brief this year argued that China’s “no strings attached” approach to arms sales and military cooperation “could undermine the defence of European values in Africa, namely human rights and liberal political systems”.

China’s “no strings attached” approach to arms sales and military cooperation could undermine the defence of European values in Africa, namely human rights and liberal political systems.

Despite those concerns, China is still more popular in Africa than in any other region. The 2015 Pew Global Attitudes survey found an average favourability rating for Beijing across nine African countries of 70 percent – compared with 41 percent in Europe and North America.

India in Africa

India is Africa’s fourth largest trading partner, with a trade turnover of $70 billion in 2014-15 (far outstripped by China’s $220 billion). It imports commodities and exports manufactured products, and has also provided much-need affordable medicine to the continent by selling generic drugs in violation of US intellectual property laws.

Indian engagement with Africa has recently undergone a step-change, which began with the third edition of the India-Africa Forum Summit in Delhi last year. The summit — an altogether bigger and buzzier event than its previous editions — generated plenty of goodwill.

This was built on during Modi’s visits this month of Mozambique, South Africa, Tanzania and Kenya. The four countries, which dominate sub-Saharan Africa’s eastern coastline, were obvious targets for Modi’s Indian Ocean diplomacy push, in which he has been promoting the idea of a ‘blue economy’. With the growing threat of China’s naval presence, its base at Djibouti, and its “One Belt One Road” initiative, India has felt the need to protect its stakes in the Indian Ocean Region. This is where the ‘blue economy’ comes in, by combining ocean-related economic cooperation with a maritime security agenda.

In all, 19 agreements were signed during the PM’s first tour of the African mainland, in areas as diverse as defence, information technology, small industry, sports, drug trafficking, water resource management and arts and culture. Food security, healthcare, mining and manufacturing emerged as key areas of cooperation, along with energy security — Indian firms have invested heavily in natural gas projects in Mozambique and are exploring the potential for others in Tanzania. India also pitched itself to South Africa as an attractive destination for defence production and gained South Africa’s endorsement for its bid for membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group. 

But to realise the extent of India’s charm offensive, Modi’s visit must be seen in conjunction with two others: President Pranab Mukherjee’s visit to Ghana, Cote d’Ivore and Namibia in June; and Vice President Hamid Ansari’s visit to Morocco and Tunisia in May. Both were long overdue – India has traditionally hosted African leaders at home rather than visiting the continent. “These visits correct the impression that India considers Africa as a great friend, but not as high priority”, says HHS Viswanathan, former ambassador to Cote d’Ivore and Nigeria in an interview with ECFR.

The aid and assistance provided by India is different from the Chinese model of large infrastructure projects. “Indians tends to do things softly and slowly and it’s not that visible.” Ruchita Beri, head of the Africa programme at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses tells us. Developing human resources through education, vocational training and skill development have been the cornerstones of India’s model. Indian policymakers call it a pro-people model that will help Africa upskill its people to prepare for its impending demographic challenges.

In other words, India, which cannot play catch up with China, plays to its strengths through a projection of soft power. This is not a new strategy, but it has been enhanced over time and in Modi it has found an enthusiastic proponent.

India, which cannot play catch up with China, plays to its strengths through a projection of soft power.

A stumbling block for the India government has been its occasional failure to deliver on promises, particularly in the developmental projects extended under Lines of Credit. Unlike the Chinese, who almost always deliver on time, Indian projects often suffer from that very Indian condition of indefinite delays. This was addressed at the India-Africa Forum Summit in Delhi last year, where India promised a joint monitoring mechanism to ensure implementation of projects.   

Migration has been a big part of the Indian-African relationship. The Indian diaspora in Africa numbers nearly 2.5 million and is spread across 46 countries. Most of them migrated as indentured labour during the colonial period. Since independence, African students have been moving in the opposite direction in large numbers. There are nearly 25,000 African students currently residing in India, and at the last summit the number of scholarships was doubled to 50,000.

But recent events have dampened the goodwill generated by this gesture. There have been a spate of racially-motivated attacks on Africans in Indian cities in the last few years. Modi was expected to raise this issue on his tour and reassure the leaders he met, but he chose to ignore it.

There has been increased recognition of the fact that India needs Africa, for more than one reason. Apart from natural resources, it needs to ally itself with the fast-growing African market. India also needs to cultivate the powerful African bloc to support its growing aspirations at various fora and institutions, for example its bid to the UNSC and NSG.

A continent big enough for both

An editorial featured in the Chinese state-run newspaper Global Times after Modi’s recent Africa trip stated that China has no reason to be “jealous” of India’s growing influence. China may not be jealous yet, but it has certainly been watching closely as India sets out to reclaim space on a continent where it has enjoyed a historical and emotional connection.

 China may not be jealous yet, but it has certainly been watching closely. 

Both countries are welcome players and a competitive engagement could be beneficial, with India complementing China in some areas and learning from it in others – and vice versa.  But there is also the risk that the traditional rivalry between China and India will be staged in Africa to the detriment of African political and economic interests. Some call it the new “scramble for Africa”, but 21st century Africa is decidedly different from the Africa of 1884. It is also big enough to accommodate both powers.    

Sunaina Kumar is a Delhi-based journalist and Medienbotschafter Fellow 2016. Angela Stanzel is Policy Fellow for the ECFR Asia and China Programme.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Editor, China Analysis
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