Once again Prime Minister Manmohan
Singh asserted recently, while answering a journalist, that the
world was large enough to accommodate the growth ambitions of both
India and China. In a similar vein but speaking specifically about
Africa, a senior official in India's Ministry of External Affairs
observed, at a recent seminar in Delhi, that India-Africa
partnership "stands on its own", thereby denying indirectly that
China had anything to do with it. Characterising it as "an old
relationship, very mature and productive", he aptly remarked that
it "has worked for us and for them (i.e., Africans)".
Thanks to geographical proximity, age-old knowledge of sea winds
that determined travel by dhows across the Indian Ocean, and a
long history of trade and cultural exchanges, India's ties with
the eastern coast of Africa had flourished for long. Shared
experience of colonialism deepened this affinity, reinforced by
large-scale migration of Indians to eastern and southern Africa.
In the struggle against colonialism and apartheid, India and
Africa were comrades-in-arms. Throughout this interaction going
back to centuries, China did not exist as a factor. No wonder
Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister, went around
'introducing' then Chinese premier Zhou Enlai to African leaders
at the Bandung Conference in 1955. However, the situation has
since changed dramatically, especially in the past decade.
Regardless of how New Delhi projects it, the fact remains that
many experts and media representatives in Western countries as
well as in Africa, India and China have been commenting frequently
on China-Africa relations and India-Africa relations, adopting a
comparative approach in evaluating their growth and the challenges
they face in the future. Several key points emerge from their
First, China began a comprehensive, institutionalised approach to
dealing with Africa at the continental level through its Forum on
China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) which has become an influential
force since inception in October 2000. India adopted a modified
approach which emanated from its consultations with the 54-nation
African Union (AU); instead of inviting all member-states of AU,
it invited only a handful of them stressing their representative
character, to the first India-Africa Forum Summit held in 2008.
Programmes of cooperation which emerged from the two processes
have been considerably similar.
Secondly, both China and India need Africa's support for their
political goals and agenda in world affairs. Both have also been
helping Africa to secure a greater say in international governance
institutions. Both support Africa in improving its performance to
achieve its Millennium Development Goals. Development models of
India and China as well as their diplomatic styles have been under
constant debate and scrutiny among African countries.
Thirdly, when it comes to 'political visibility', China has been
running far ahead of India, with its programme of regular and
frequent visits by its president, prime minister, foreign minister
and other dignitaries to all regions of Africa - west, east, north
and south. Indians ministers do visit African countries, but
visits at the VVIP level are still very few. Similarly, visits by
African leaders to China are far larger in number than those to
India. Apparently this 'visibility deficit' has been factored in
by New Delhi recently, with the result that an increased number of
high-level visits from Africa to India have taken place in 2010.
Fourthly, economic relations offer a mixed picture. As regards
trade, financial aid, project assistance, record of winning energy
and mining assets and participation in infrastructure development,
China has achieved much greater success. India's investment
presence, however, is bigger. India Inc. has focused attention on
its core strengths, namely, ICT, small industry, pharmaceutical,
automobile and banking sectors as well as assistance for human
resource development. But capacity building is not India's
monopoly; China too has been helping Africa considerably.
Finally, India's diaspora in Africa is much larger and a more
integrated element in Africa's social landscape than Chinese
communities present in a few countries, especially where new
projects have brought a sizable number of Chinese workers.
Potential for the Indian diaspora to contribute to the growth of
India-Africa relations is getting realized, but not optimally yet.
A senior European diplomat based in Delhi told me recently: "There
is no competition between China and India because the latter is
not there!" It is an erroneous view, not borne by facts. On the
other hand, to argue that the China factor is irrelevant to
India's contemporary approach to Africa too is questionable.
Instead of denying the unfolding competition with China, India
could pursue a better option, namely, to acknowledge it
realistically, monitor the evolution and implementation of China's
Africa policy closely, and deepen pro-actively its own engagement
with Africa. Given Africa's needs and India's capabilities as well
as track record, cooperation between the two should be expanded
much further and faster. This would be the key challenge for the
second India-Africa Forum Summit to be held in 2011.
(The author served as
India's High Commissioner to Kenya and later to Lesotho and South
Africa. He can be reached at email@example.com)