The current geopolitical landscape in Africa represents an unique opportunity for occupying the power vacuum that will be created as Western nations reduce their footprint abroad. China will be best placed to seize this opportunity and has already been aggressively stepping up its involvement in Africa.
Domestically, there is a sentiment in India that it is not doing enough to compete with China in Africa because the Indian economy is sensitive to oil prices, which notably affect the prices of food. India will have to do more if it wants to pole vault to superpower status by riding on the African wave.
Forming an alliance with other nations would enable India to compete seriously with China’s spending power, value neutral approach and lack of domestic opposition. India could team up with Brazil and South Africa by expanding the ambit of the India Brazil South Africa Dialogue Forum or with the United States in recognition of India’s democratic credentials.
Taking on China with the IBSA approach will require considerable political will because all three nations depend on China to some extent. Dependencies, though, are always double edged. Teaming up is the favorable option because one third of the pie is more than what either of the parties could secure if they act unilaterally, with the opportunities otherwise falling to either China or the West.
The potential for backlash might be mitigated by masking extraction of resources energy with developmental initiatives which benefit the common man, bringing into play Brazil’s expertise in agriculture and India’s in low cost technology. Having South Africa on board will give this coalition an edge over the Chinese who could increasingly be seen as neocolonialists.
China could spoil the relationship by forming a partnership with South Africa of its own, which it has helped promote to the league of BRIC nations despite its small size. An alliance with South Africa will not so much help China as it will thwart the efforts of other nations.
The “Look West” in Africa strategy plays on Western fears that China will paint the dark continent red. Although India has been wary of forming an alliance with America domestically, it may choose to collaborate in Africa to test the waters.
The mutual interest in balancing the rise of China has started to crystallize with opposition lawmakers in the United States pushing for deeper engagement with India at the expense of the military partnership with Pakistan. Given China’s efforts to reverse recognition of Taiwan on the continent, the bond will grow stronger if Africa becomes an ideological battleground for issues like Tibet.
Apart from leveraging Indian entrepreneurial experience with American technology and capital, an ideological strategy which politicizes the role of the religion and NGOs to promote democracy may be worth exploring as well. These efforts could be supplemented by cultural and student exchange programs which offer individual Africans a taste of liberty in the hope that they inspire others.
The Chinese response could vary depending on the success of this policy but an extreme choice would be to mobilize local militia using colonial rhetoric to force the United States to extent a security umbrella for its investments.
The Look West policy would cause a convergence of interests that would push America to look at Asia through India’s lens, which could become important if China continues to refuse India a Security Council berth, but should the policy fail, India risks being sequestered from the south.
Both policy options will require India to move its foreign policy beyond notions of nonalignment, an achievable feat given the generational shift that will see new Indian policymakers, born in an independent India, eager to play a greater international role. Furthermore, both will attract China’s arm twisting tactics, so sticking your nose out against China will be easier than keeping it there.
The lBSA approach is comparatively less hedged and represents an opportunity for these rising powers to forge their own path in Africa. The new kids on the block will be taking on both China and the United States but should America retreat, they might prefer the IBSA camp.
Forming an alliance with the West could also be less attractive because it entails dealing primarily with democracies and enforcing other standards of good governance, which could make progress slow and cost India more concessions on Burma and Iran.