It’s likely to be the biggest diplomatic event in independent India’s political history. Never have more than 39 heads of states gathered in the country – this figure was achieved in the Commonwealth Summit of 1983, hosted by Indira Gandhi. But if 40 or more government heads eventually do arrive in Delhi as the Indian government hopes they will, the third India-Africa Forum Summit from October 26-29 will be the homecoming – dare I say, ghar-wapsi – of Narendra Modi’s high-octane foreign policy. However, the more important question is: how well will the diplomacy of spectacle translate into the diplomacy of substance?
To be sure, this summit fills a nagging void in Modi’s omni-directional foreign policy. Air India One may have flown all over the world but it has not made a landing on the African mainland in the last 16 months. Barring his brief visits to the Indian Ocean island countries of Mauritius and Seychelles, the African continent is the only one that remains unticked on the Prime Minister’s global travel chart. Until now, the Modi government’s Africa policy has been conspicuous by its absence. But given how diligently the Ministry of External Affairs has worked to pull off this summit, which was postponed in December last year because of the Ebola pandemic, expectations are high.
India-Africa summits have invariably played under the shadow of the Dragon. The first two summits – in New Delhi (2008) and Addis Ababa (2011) – saw a limited number of African leaders in attendance because of the African Union’s insistence on limiting participation to 15 countries as per the ‘Banjul formula’. The Chinese equivalent, the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), started in 2000 in Beijing, has seen extensive participation from almost all African leaders. This year, however, the India-Africa summit will almost certainly draw comparisons with its Chinese counterpart, when the African leaders once again assemble in Johannesburg for the sixth FOCAC meeting in December 2015. The United States, Japan and the EU also have their own versions of such summits.
Dwarfed by China
China’s trade statistics with the continent are overwhelming. At $222 billion, its trade with Africa in 2014 was almost three times that of the United States – a country that China only overtook in 2009 as Africa’s largest trading partner. In comparison, India’s trade statistics may not look impressive. However, compared to the bilateral trade of $1 billion in 1995, the 2011/12 figure of $70 billion is staggering. The worrying factor is that this figure has remained largely the same for the past 3 years. In 2014/15, the bilateral trade was $71.5 billion.
Between 2000 and 2012, China undertook developmental aid projects worth $84 billion in Africa. In 2014, the Chinese Premier Li Keqiang promised another $12 billion – $10 billion in increased credit lines and an extra $2 billion to the China-Africa Development Fund. However, much of China’s aid to Africa is still directed towards infrastructure projects. While no match for China, India has also extended almost 60% of its developmental aid to Africa. In the India-Africa Forum Summit in 2008, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had announced $5.4 billion as lines of credit to African countries, to which a further $5 billion was added in the next summit in 2011. India also wrote off the debts of Mozambique, Ghana, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia under the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries II Initiative. Significantly, India has launched a number of capacity building projects such as the Pan-African E-Network Project, the Focus Africa Programme, and the Team 9 Initiative. Under the India Technical and Economic Cooperation (ITEC) programme, over 100 officials from sub-Saharan Africa receive training annually in India. Furthermore, the Indian government gives 22,000 scholarships every year to African students. India also has various health and education initiatives in Africa and cheap Indian drugs have proved immensely helpful in combating diseases such as malaria and HIV/AIDS in the continent. Through these mechanisms, India has consciously chosen the path of unconditional and co-developmental aid.
China’s engagements in Africa, however, are facing some backlash. Criticisms about Chinese neo-colonialism, especially with regard to the unfair labour and environmental practices of the Chinese companies, have become quite vociferous in the past few years. While most of these criticisms are still confined to civil society and grassroots actors, China’s off-shoring practices are also now being indirectly questioned within some African governments. One of China’s strongest supporters, the ruling African National Congress in South Africa, for instance, has recently released a discussion document where it has asked for greater caution on the negative effects of such practices. To be sure, Indian companies are no saints either. They are also accused of land grabbing, especially in East Africa, but the sheer economic and demographic footprint of China – more than one million Chinese labourers occupy the African job market now – dwarf any criticisms directed towards India. While India will not be able to challenge China’s economic dominance in the region, at least in the near future, its pull as a relatively benign power allows it a greater scope of engagement. Besides, India’s 3 million strong diasporic community, hitherto untapped, is now viewed as a vital resource in Africa. Given how effectively the BJP government has used the diaspora, mostly in the West, to push its foreign policy agenda (as well as its ideology domestically), it remains to be seen how India’s large diaspora in Africa will be utilised by this government.
India’s push, Africa’s pull
Although the relations between India and African countries have generally been good over the years, it was only in the first decade of the 21st century that they gained significant momentum. The push came from India’s burgeoning post-liberalisation private sector but the pull was the ‘African Renaissance’ project – championed by the then-South African President Thabo Mbeki. While making a call for greater solidarity of the African countries with the Global South within the neoliberal paradigm, African Renaissance served as an ideological background for greater economic cooperation between Africa and the rising economies of the Global South.
Alongside trade and developmental aid, energy security is the third major focus area of India-Africa ties. With only 0.3% of the global energy resources and 17% of its population, India is an acutely energy deficient country. By 2025, 90% of India’s oil demand will come from outside. The often volatile situation in West Asia has pushed India to diversify its energy basket. In the past 10 years, African countries have emerged as a major alternative to West Asia. In a single year, from 2005/06 to 2006/07, India’s imports from Nigeria increased almost 100 times. Today, it is the second largest exporter of oil to India after Saudi Arabia. Almost 45% of India’s trade with Africa is with only two countries – Nigeria and South Africa. But India’s imports from Nigeria, mostly oil, alone are more than the total trade with South Africa. There are also other benefits of sourcing energy from Africa. The oil from Africa, particularly from the Gulf of Guinea, is low in sulphur and high on quality. Most of the oil fields in Africa are offshore and hence away from conflict areas. Unlike Saudi Arabia and some countries in West Asia, African oil market is open for foreign investment.
Further, India’s ambitions of UN permanent membership rest majorly on the support of African countries which usually vote en-bloc – though the African Union’s Ezulwini Consensus places the continent’s plans for UNSC expansion at loggerheads with that of the G4. In addition to the issue of UN reforms, India and African countries also share perspectives on a number of issues such as a more equitable international economic order, new regional formations, climate change, the WTO, and a host of other international issues. Maritime security in the Indian Ocean is another concern that calls for better coordination among India and eastern and southern African countries. Ninety per cent of India’s trade volume and 70% of trade value comes by sea. Further, as India becomes more energy dependent on external resources, the safety of sea lanes of communication in the Indian Ocean becomes paramount. In the recent past, the problem of piracy has propelled a number of regional actors including India to take joint actions against pirates. In view of this, India has signed defence agreements with Mauritius, Madagascar, Seychelles, Kenya, Mozambique and Tanzania. On all of these issues, there is an ever more need to increase collaborations and develop mechanisms for joint positions.
Finally, Africa has now claimed its place as a global economic player. Unfortunately, western images of Africa have often driven the debate about the continent, from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness to Robert Kaplan’s ‘Coming Anarchy’ to The Economist’s ‘Hopeless Continent’. However, more salubrious depictions of Africa celebrating its ‘renaissance’ are now becoming predominant. Incantations of ‘Africa Rising’ and a ‘Hopeful Continent’ may once again be just as much a western narrative focused on the region’s extractive industry. But the underlying promise of Africa comes through with indicators of increasing productivity, political stability, diversifying economies, rising trade figures, declining unemployment, reducing rural poverty, among others. Indeed, seven of the world’s fastest growing economies are now in Africa. All of this means that Africa’s engagement with the world is an opportunity for better, more equal relations. For India, this is an opportunity to take India’s Africa policy out of China’s shadow and truly bring foreign policy home.
Vineet Thakur is a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Johannesburg
Note: The piece has been edited to correct a reference to India importing 90% of its oil requirements. Earlier, this was misstated as 90% of its energy requirements.