India Catching Up With China in Africa

Although China is ahead of India, the latter can improve its relations with Africa through language and culture.

Globe with a view of the Indian Ocean
Globe with a view of the Indian Ocean (Stephen Ritchie)

While both China and India are attempting to extend their sphere of influence into Africa, Beijing is clearly ahead of New Delhi, not just because it’s economically superior rather because it has pursued an astute realpolitik in its foreign relations.

Economically, China does have a significant edge with trade relations with different African countries set to top $100 billion this year compared with about a third of that between India and Africa in 2009.

Part of the reason for India’s falling behind is its reactive nature to events unfolding nearby whereas China has been proactive abroad. Since 2000 China has attended regular summits of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation as have numerous African heads of state. India has tried to do the same thing but the only India-Africa Forum Summit to date, in April 2008, saw just fourteen African countries attend.

Historically, China has approached Africa with Mao’s classic world view in mind — that it’s good to make distant friends in order to fight enemies nearby. A similar understanding has been absent in India’s strategic thinking. There is a need for India to start getting out of box of the subcontinent and project power across the world. Africa should be the starting point.

On the other hand, many of the African countries have viewed China with a sense of gratitude. Angola, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Namibia and Sudan all feel a sense of obligation toward China for helping them while battling civil unrest in the wake of the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.

With the end of the Cold War, during which Russia and the United States competed for influence in Africa, the Americans largely lost interest, leaving a “strategic gap” for China to fill. The gap was a large one. Many African nations depended heavily on their Cold War sponsors during the 1960s and 1970s for nation building assistance after securing independence from their colonial masters.

China used its leverage as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council to ensure that funds and peacekeeping missions poured into those countries affected by civil strife. The support was payback in part. Many African nations had supported Red China’s attempt to be recognized on the Council instead of Taiwan — something which finally happened in 1971.

China received significant backing from African nations who themselves felt that they had benefited from the close, revolutionary ties that Mao had forged in the 1960s. China largely danced in tune with the Soviet Union before the Soviet-US détente and after China-Soviet relations deteriorated, it sided with the United States. China cleverly self triangulated itself. For example, there was the Conferência das Organizações Nacionalistas das Colónias Portuguesas (CONCP) which was established as a pro-Soviet liberation front in 1961 to wage revolutionary war against the Portuguese colonial authorities in Southwest Africa. The movements united under this banner received extensive arms training in China. When Sino-Soviet relations worsened, China stopped offering support and accused Moscow of promoting socialistic imperialism in African countries.

China further boosted its legitimacy by suggesting that its self-imposed withdrawal from world affairs during the Qing era (1644-1911) coincided with Portugal’s colonial exploits in Africa. Zhou Enlai, the first Premier of the People’s Republic of China, pointed this out while visiting Tanzania in 1965. At the same time, though China struggled with a messy Cultural Revolution at home, it participated in African development projects, including the TAZARA Railway which connects the countries of Tanzania and Zambia.

India, by contrast, which fought a limited war against the Portuguese in the liberation of Goa in 1961, remained largely indifferent to the attempts of Lusophone Africa to attain independence. It was known to oppose colonialism but didn’t volunteer concrete support.

Today, India does have two distinct advantages over China — the fact that it is a democracy and that is has languages in common with much of Africa.

Despite the local African languages and Arab spoken in part of the northern Africa, English, French and Portuguese pervade. India has ties with all three. It could turn to former Portuguese settlements as Goa and what used to be French colonies, as Pondicherry, to cultivate ties with Lusophone and Francophone Africa respectively. More than a hundred million people across Africa, in 31 different nations, speak French. Five — Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, São Tomé and Príncipe, Angola, and Mozambique — speak Portuguese.

India could further exploit its position in the Commonwealth to promote cultural and political ties with former British colonies. Eighteen African states are part of this organization.

If India finds a way to use its economic potential for the benefit of developing African nations, it may be able to amplify its influence and strengthen its own bid for permanent UN Security Council membership.

Another important factor missing in India’s foreign policy is the role which diasporas could play in strategic calculations. As a result of nineteenth century indentured labor migration, many states in East Africa host substantial Indian populations. New Delhi should consider extending student exchange programs and scholarships to ethnic Indians living in Africa as a way to foster relations across continents.

For this to happen there needs to be a paradigm shift in India’s foreign policy. Since India gained independence, its external relations have been shrouded in idealism. If it starts to regard its geopolitical position with a greater sense of realism, it would do itself a great favor. India is a great continental power and has been aware of this when it engaged with its immediate neighbors. But with a coastline of some 8,000 miles, India is a maritime power as well and should start behaving accordingly.