The contrasting role of India and China in Africa
Trade between China and Africa grew by 700% during the 1990s, and China is currently Africa’s largest trading partner.
By (Mrs) Amb Narinder Chauhan
Modern political and economic relations between mainland China and the African continent began in the era of Mao, after the victory of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in the Chinese Civil War. Trade between China and Africa grew by 700% during the 1990s, and China is currently Africa’s largest trading partner. The Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) has since 2000 become the official forum for strengthening relations. The United States and the old colonial masters may provide military equipment and boots in the field, but in the daily lives of Africans, the cell phones used, the televisions watched and the roads driven are built by the Chinese. African governments willingly accepted loans from China because no liability was required in return. African leaders could win elections thanks to the roads, ports and railways promised to citizens.
However, trade unions and civil society criticize China’s economic engagement with Africa over poor working conditions, unsustainable environmental practices and job cuts caused by Chinese companies. China is also believed to be taking advantage of weaknesses in African government, thereby encouraging corruption and wasteful decision-making.
Angola, Ghana, Gambia and Kenya have seen protests against Chinese-funded projects. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, there is growing public concern about unconditional loans being used to launder money for projects that never get built. There have also been shadow projects in Nigeria. The international community is increasingly concerned about China’s role on the African continent.
This is where India comes in. Unlike China which has focused on building infrastructure and extracting natural resources, India, with its investments of over $11 billion, has focused on its core skills in human resource development, information technology, maritime safety, education and health. care. China’s efforts to build infrastructure will only yield results if they create jobs and expand the countries’ productive capacity. The reality is that Chinese companies are often accused of employing mostly Chinese workers and doing less to build local capacity and providing little training and skills development for African employees. Some Chinese infrastructures risk being mere vanities.
In contrast, the construction and financing of Indian projects in Africa aim to facilitate local participation and development. Indian companies are relying more on African talent and building the capacity of local people. Moreover, unlike loans from China – and even from the IMF and the World Bank – for projects which are mostly dictated or imposed from above, India’s development assistance through lines concessional credit, grants and capacity building programs is demand driven and not tied. India’s role in Africa therefore goes hand in hand with Africa’s own growth agenda set by the African Union Secretariat, regional bodies or by individual countries.
In addition, majority of seats for capacity building in Centers of Excellence across India through the International Technical and Economic Cooperation (ITEC) program are reserved for African countries. This program alone has been worth more than a billion dollars since its inception in the 1960s. In addition, hundreds of millions of dollars are spent by India on aid projects in the form of grants in Africa which are implemented in a consultative and transparent manner through open bidding. India also offers scholarship programs for African students in Indian educational institutions.
India has pioneered tele-education and tele-medicine programs to connect hospitals and educational institutions in all African countries to India through a fiber optic network. India has helped Africa in the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic with the supply of vaccines and equipment to 42 countries, mainly in sub-Saharan Africa. India and South Africa have come together at the WTO to seek a waiver from the patent regime for Covid-19 vaccinations, the move has been largely backed by African nations.
India also has many other advantages over China. While China’s political-economic model is attractive, public support for democracy in Africa is very high. India is seen as a country that offers a model of economic development with basic democracy, accountability and transparency. For this reason alone, Indian experts, accountants, managers and teachers have remained highly sought after in Africa.
Moreover, India enjoys the advantages of linguistic and cultural affinity. Indian presence in Africa comes with the added benefit of the English language which is widely spoken in Africa. It helps locals to converse with Indian businesses. Indian training and capacity building programs are also in English, allowing for both technological development and absorption in host countries.
The role of the Indian diaspora in Africa, 3 million strong, is eclectic. The diaspora plays its own role as a bridge between India and Africa, although it is equally important that people of Indian origin remain well integrated in their host country, it is an aspect to which the Africa is particularly sensitive.
India is better connected geographically to the African continent and therefore also shares its security concerns. India views African countries bordering the Indian Ocean as key to its Indo-Pacific strategy, and with many of them India has signed defense and navigation agreements, including joint exercises. This is especially true of the African Indian Ocean island states which are crucial for India in maintaining safe sea lanes and dealing with climate change issues. Indian Armed Forces training squads are popular and have helped foster a democratic spirit. The role of Indian blue helmets is highly appreciated.
China may therefore begin to derive less benefit from its relationship with Africa. At FOCAC held in Dakar, Senegal in November 2021, China cut its funding over the next three years from $60 billion at the previous summit to $40 billion, seen as a sign that China’s relationship with the mainland is changing. Residents are increasingly protesting against Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects because of their environmental problems in their communities. Despite all the rhetoric about China’s growing presence in Africa, its economic engagement is surprisingly limited. In 2020, Africa only accounted for 4% of China’s trade with the world. In 2019, Africa represented only 2.9% of Chinese FDI in the world. On the other hand, China accounted for 16.4% of Africa’s trade with the world in 2020. China was also the source of $153 billion in cumulative loans to African countries between 2000 and 2019, giving rise to to the debt trap phenomenon.
The economic importance of Africa for China is very modest. Africa has little role to play in the BRI which mainly aims to better penetrate the EU market; Chinese investments in this context in Africa are mainly in Egypt and in the Horn of Africa, along the route to the Suez Canal. If economics doesn’t explain China’s interest in Africa, what does? The quintessence of Sino-African relations is not economic, but geopolitical. Post Tiananmen Square was a turning point: where China was shunned by the West, we saw African leaders exchanging visits with Chinese leaders. The pivot of its relations with Africa was therefore to restore the dignity which China had suffered on the international level. He continues to use 54 African states to expand the radius of his international influence in the game China is currently playing with the United States.
India and China have growing interests in Africa and are increasingly in geopolitical competition. Both have benefited from the voting patterns of African states at the UN and elsewhere. India’s growing engagement with Africa holds the promise of benefits for both partners on the basis of equality and mutual respect. This is the leitmotif of India’s outreach to Africa through the institutionalized process of the India-Africa Summit launched in 2008, which provides a coherent and comprehensive strategy that is inclusive, people-centred, sustainable and guided by African needs and priorities. India has very wisely built a progressive structure on the foundations of its historic participation in African freedom, the non-aligned movement and the global struggle against apartheid and repression, which have earned it a role unique on the continent.
(The author is a former Indian Ambassador and former Joint Secretary, Africa at the Department of External Affairs. She tweets:@nchauhanifs The views expressed are personal and do not reflect the position or official policy of Financial Express Online. Reproduction of this content without permission is prohibited).
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