In what is being seen as New Delhi’s clearly chalked out strategy to reduce the Chinese influence in Africa, Prime Minister Narendra Modi offered everything on the plate — defence and economic cooperation, combating terrorism, clean energy and addressing climate change — when he met the African dignitaries during the four-day India Africa Forum Summit that concluded on Thursday. India’s announcement of $10 billion aid to Africa is a demonstration of her willingness to cement ties with the continent, hitherto dependent solely on Beijing to buy its natural resources.
As the economic slowdown in China becomes more apparent by the day, there is apprehension in Africa that the demand for its resources will drop. By hosting 41 heads of state from 54 countries in Africa, PM Modi, hence, sent out a timely message that India is eager to step forward as Africa’s natural alternative in that scenario. This move is being hailed by many as a “foreign policy foresight” of the current regime as, in the coming years, India’s economy is set to grow further, accelerating the demand for cheap and readily available natural resources.
PM Modi is understood to have also used the opportunity to secure commitment from African leaders to back India’s attempt to democratise the United Nations Security Council, signalling to Beijing that New Delhi is not behind it when it comes to assertion of her place as a world power.
Experts believe that although India cannot compete with China in doling out a concessional line of credit, PM Modi is trying to replicate an Aghanistan-like non-militarised partnership with Africa, with focus on capacity building. “I think it is a larger part of the strategy of the Modi government. It is an attempt to increase India’s engagement with the African continent and it reflects the robust foreign policy approach of the Modi government,” Monika Chansoria, a columnist writing on India’s foreign relations, told The Sunday Guardian.
She dismissed cynics who have been sniffing at the India-Africa Forum Summit, the biggest ever assembly of dignitaries in India from abroad since the 1983 Non-Aligned Summit, as a late approach to a continent where China has monopolised the economic and diplomatic zone. “When one talks of foreign policy approaches, be it bilateral or multilateral, I do not think that the attempt should be to see how much of space is left or not. The attempt should be to build a collaborative relationship. And with so many leaders and heads of state visiting India, it is also about India asserting its position as an emerging power to reckon with. Africa is a very important continent where Indian presence and Indian investment shall help in India’s assertion as an emerging power.”
Despite India’s strong political ties with Africa in the first three decades since her independence in 1947, the momentum was gradually lost. Although Indian and African diplomats gathered on two occasions recently, in the New Delhi summit in 2008 and later the Addis Ababa summit in 2011, the erstwhile United Progressive Alliance government led by former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh failed to devote much insight or prepare the blueprint for long-term bilateral relations. In the summit held at the Indira Gandhi National Stadium here, PM Modi, however, indicated without ambiguity that he wanted to re-energise India’s bond with the continent. By calling on the heads of states, the PM has signalled that India is going to pay attention to Africa at the appropriate levels and by setting aside a large amount, he has also indicated the country’s willingness to partner them in infrastructure projects, human resource development, and institution building, besides the ongoing projects on agriculture, health and education.
Those aware of the nature of Chinese engagement in Africa believe that despite the huge financial grants the latter has received, there has been an element of exploitation. Jayadeva Ranade, a foreign policy commentator, said that although China is way ahead in terms of investment, there are downsides to it. “Almost a million Chinese have settled in Africa. And they have started small businesses in that continent by edging out the local African people. There are questions being raised on the kind of ventures they have got into, and whether their businesses are of any benefit to the people of Africa,” Ranade told this newspaper. He added that the slowing down of China’s economy may hamper some projects that China had initiated including the “one road, one belt project”, and it was a good time for India to build its ties with Africa. “We can impart training in certain kinds of agricultural development, and other areas of capacity building and skill development. Besides that, we have a reservoir of goodwill which we can tap into, and also channel our Diaspora for more engagement with the local. So we have pluses which are not in competition with or are undermined by what the Chinese are doing in Africa,” he pointed out.
India’s trade with Africa in 2014-2015 stood at nearly $70 billion and Indian companies are estimated to have invested as much as $30-35 billion there over the last 10 years. India’s concessional credit, although insignificant compared to that of China, is responsible for 137 projects created in 41 African countries.
However, it will be early to predict that the Indian efforts can fetch a formal nod from the African Union to second New Delhi’s aspiration for a permanent membership in the expanded UNSC. “This will be a very important decision on which the African Union will have to come together in a unified manner. But that will be difficult because each country has its own Chinese stake invested in that country, and the Chinese definitely are very adept at playing coercive diplomacy. They will use all the cards in their hand to ensure that they are able to emphasise the Chinese concern,” a source in the diplomatic circles told this correspondent.