Into Africa: India vies with China for post-pandemic clout

Linda J. Dodson

NEW DELHI — India and China appear to have found a new arena in which to compete for global power and influence: Humanitarian aid for Africa.

The Indian navy on Mar. 12 deployed a warship to deliver 600 tonnes of rice — its largest humanitarian assistance — to flood-hit Madagascar. This followed a January relief operation by the navy that provided medical aid and sent a health team to the affected area. Such support made India the first country to respond to the disaster on the island nation off Africa’s east coast in the Indian Ocean. Madagascar’s foreign minister “described India as a true friend who is always there during the time of need,” the Indian navy proudly said in a statement.

The aid for Madagascar came less than a year after India dispatched naval ships to Mozambique, another cyclone-hit nation.

India, especially under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has aggressively been approaching the Western Indian Ocean region as a strategic priority. His government apparently considers the Indian Ocean as ‘India’s ocean’ and the key to challenging China for influence in the area. And that very much includes Africa, where Modi’s government has also begun offering disaster relief in addition to traditional trade and investment.

Now, however, the coronavirus is threatening to hamper the initiative as India focuses on preventing its spread throughout the vast country of more than 1.3 billion people. Still, the government on Apr. 7 announced that it would supply essential medicine to some badly-hit nations, citing “humanitarian aspects of the pandemic.”

Doctors of the Indian Navy treat survivors of hurricane Idaj in Mozambique in 2019.

  © Getty Images

Rival China, on the other hand, having seemingly overcome the worst of COVID-19, is already offering help to a host of countries around the world in their fight to against the pandemic. And it continues to aggressively woo Africa, a pillar of its global diplomatic and commercial strategy, aiming to accelerate momentum on the continent.

On Mar. 21, Rwandan President Paul Kagame in a tweet profusely thanked Chinese internet shopping billionaire Jack Ma for his “generous donation” of diagnostic test kits to detect the coronavirus.

Ma’s aid followed Beijing’s Mar. 18 video conference with nearly 300 officials and health care specialists from the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention and 24 countries from the continent during which Chinese experts shared experiences and practices in controlling the epidemic and treating patients.

“While continuing to strengthen epidemic control at home, we will share all we know about the pandemic with African countries, and do our best to support and help these countries and regional organizations in accordance with their needs,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang told reporters after the conference.

It’s no wonder that Africa, blessed with oil and other natural resources and a market of 1.2 billion people, is attractive to the two countries, which can both claim affinities going back decades. China built railroads in Africa in the 1950s and championed the cause of its emerging nations. But the continent also has strong historical ties with India rooted in their shared colonial past and struggle for development after independence from European powers.

Rahul Kashyap, a New Delhi-based independent analyst and expert on Sino-Indian relations, says competition is intensifying. “The scramble for [an] increasing sphere of influence in Africa will only grow after the global economy tumbles further due to COVID-19,” he said

Workers unload a consignment of medical supplies donated by Chinese billionaire Jack Ma at the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport in Nigeria on March 25.

India’s engagement with Africa has intensified since Modi assumed office in 2014 against the backdrop of China’s growing commercial forays. He became the first Indian prime minister to visit Rwanda in a 2018 tour that came just 24 hours after Chinese President Xi Jinping undertook his maiden trip there. Both leaders pledged more than $320 million in loans to the country seen as a gateway to eastern Africa.

Modi, who later visited Uganda, outlined key principles of India’s engagement, saying New Delhi would support Africa’s development through better health, education and agriculture. He also vowed to advance the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals there. “Today, India and Africa stand on the threshold of a future of great promise: as confident, secure, youthful, innovative, and dynamic people,” he said.

The two countries’ approach toward Africa, however, is rooted in different concepts.

“Our model of cooperation with Africa is demand driven, consultative, and participative, involves local resources, builds capacity and is based on Africa’s own prioritization of its needs,” T. S. Tirumurty, a top bureaucrat in India’s foreign ministry, said in September last year.

India, the world’s largest democracy, believes its partnership hinges more on development, and its private sector — including automobile manufacturers Tata Motors and Mahindra & Mahindra, telecom giant Bharti Airtel and pharmaceutical major Cipla — is at the forefront of boosting cooperation to help build capacity and improve skills and knowledge.

Beijing’s strategy, meanwhile, can be described in starker terms. “China’s engagement is more extractive and transactional, with no strings attached,” one of its officials argued bluntly, not surprisingly wishing to remain anonymous.

Now, in a world overwhelmed by the coronavirus, analysts see China’s attempt — through both its government and private sector — to help countries hit by the outbreak, including in Africa, as an attempt to foster goodwill after it was accused of concealing the initial outbreak in Wuhan.

“In case there’s a debate in the U.N. General Assembly on COVID-19, China would not like to be seen on the wrong side of the fence,” said Pankaj Jha, a strategic affairs professor at the O.P. Jindal Global University in India’s northern Haryana state, referring to potential criticism that the virus originated in the country and the need for Africa’s support if such a scenario unfolded.

Jha added that China further does not want its economic initiatives in Africa to come to a halt and is supplying masks and other medical aid and equipment.

According to U.N. trade data for 2017, total imports of 39 African countries from China exceeded $71 billion, while those from India amounted to $21 billion. Since imports represent countries’ economic dependency, the data indicate African economies currently rely on China at a level three times more than India.

Africa is also key to the expansion of China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative, with Beijing injecting huge amounts of money not only on the continent but also in Central Asia, Europe and Southeast Asia.

Beijing has invested top dollar in developing railways and other infrastructure projects across countries in Africa such as Kenya and Tanzania, while Madagascar has drawn multifaceted aid including for roads, stadiums, hospitals and schools. China also helped the country with emergency medical supplies when it suffered large-scale plague in 2017.

India’s limited foreign policy resources make it far from easy to counter Beijing’s substantial arsenal. It is thus engaging with countries such as the U.S., Japan and Australia in a quadrilateral mechanism, popularly known as ‘Quad’, that was revived in 2017.

In that same year, India and Japan also agreed to create an Asia-Africa Growth Corridor in a bid to advance infrastructure projects along the Indian Ocean and in Africa to reduce Chinese influence, Christian Wagner wrote in a research paper for the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, pointing out that New Delhi also agreed with France to allow India’s navy to use French facilities in the Indian Ocean.

That came as Beijing is engaged in augmenting the capacity of its Djibouti naval base in East Africa, and has been holding military exercises in the region.

According to the China Africa Research Institute at U.S.-based Johns Hopkins University, the Chinese government, banks and contractors extended $143 billion in loans to African governments and their state-owned enterprises over a 17-year period from 2000.

A health worker checks the temperature of a traveler as part of coronavirus screening procedures at Kotoka International Airport in Accra, Ghana.

  © Reuters

“Low income countries are in danger of becoming locked into debt due to cheap and unsustainable Chinese loans,” wrote Abhishek Mishra of Observer Research Foundation, a New Delhi-based think tank. At the same time, he said Indian engagement in Africa is not above criticism. “The principle concern has been India’s poor track record when it comes to project delivery and implementation,” he said.

According to Shamshad Ahmad Khan, a visiting associate fellow at the Institute of Chinese Studies, while India will continue its soft power diplomacy and outreach to Africa, going head to head with China is challenging given the overwhelming discrepancy in the size of their respective economies, $2.7 trillion versus $14 trillion.

“Competing with China would be akin to overstretching itself,” Khan said of India, citing the “huge” disparity. Rather, India should act “commensurate with its economic strength.”

India, however, cannot be taken lightly, given it has entered into strategic alliances in a bid to check China’s increasing influence. “There are several African nations that are fearful of the Chinese debt trap, making it a little easier for India to forge trilateral alliances,” Kashyap said, pointing out New Delhi’s close business ties with the U.S. in Africa, apart from its relationship with Japan there as well.

“Due to complementarities in skill, capital and geostrategic strengths, such partnerships have great potential,” he said. “The trilateral arrangements not only raise the investment bar but also ward off fears of [a] unilateral grip on the aid-receiving countries.”

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