Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, while on a six day visit to Ethiopia and Tanzania last week, pledged some $6 billion in additional development aid for the two African countries, highlighting India’s mounting interest in the region.
India has invested many billions in Africa in recent years, including in infrastructure projects and educational facilities, in an effort to position itself as a benign alternative to China. Both Asian powers are eying Africa’s natural riches and are set on expanding their diplomatic presence across the Indian Ocean region.
China is years ahead of India in both trade and diplomacy, boasting more than $3 trillion in foreign exchange reserves compared to India’s $300 billion and a total trade volume of $108 billion with Africa in 2008 — more than twice India’s $46 billion last year. African trade with India is growing at a faster pace though and the country expects that it will reach $70 billion by 2015.
Beijing still leads the way in diplomacy with 42 embassies across sub-Saharan Africa, double India’s diplomatic presence. Little wonder that the Hindustan Times blamed the nation for “waking up late to the African opportunity,” although the newspaper’s editorial writers suggested that it could “make up for lost time by projecting itself as a more humane investor than its northern neighbor.”
Writing for the Atlantic Sentinel in September, Balaji Chandramohan agreed, noting that Indian “soft power” approach could be far more attractive to democratic African nations than China’s utter disregard of local politics abroad.
In the near future, China’s advantage is likely to persist, stemming from what Chandramohan described as the Middle Kingdom’s more “proactive” foreign policy compared to India’s reactive nature to events. Since the end of the Cold War, China has tried to fill a “strategic gap” left in sub-Saharan Africa by the two superpowers. “The gap was a large one,” he wrote.
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.
Many African countries came to view 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.”
For the time being, China’s reputation, its aggressive state-sponsored enterprises and superior trade relations will ensure a dominant presence in East Africa. But India is catching up. What it doesn’t buy in goods, it makes up in financial support. If the Chinese continue to clash with America in the Pacific moreover, it may be more politically expedient for the developing economies of East Africa to boost ties with their foremost Asian rivals instead.