The contrasting role of India and China in Africa

Trade between China and Africa increased by 700% during the 1990s, and China is currently Africa’s largest trading partner.

china south africa ties
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi with his Kenyan counterpart Raychelle Omamo in Mombasa last week.(Photo source: AP)

By (Mrs) Amb Narinder Chauhan

Modern political and economic relations between mainland China and the African continent commenced in the era of Mao, following the victory of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in the Chinese civil war. Trade between China and Africa increased by 700% during the 1990s, and China is currently Africa’s largest trading partner. The Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) since 2000 became the official forum to strengthen the relationship. The US and former colonial masters may provide military hardware and boots on the ground, but in the African daily lives, the mobile phones used, the televisions watched, and the roads driven are built by the Chinese. African governments willingly accepted loans from China because no accountability was required in return. African leaders could win elections thanks to the roads, ports, and railways promised to the citizens.  

However, criticism of China’s economic engagement with Africa has been growing from labor unions and civil society on the poor labor conditions, unsustainable environmental practices and job displacement caused by Chinese enterprises. China is also thought to be taking advantage of African government weaknesses, thereby encouraging corruption and wasteful decision making.

Angola, Ghana, Gambia, and Kenya have seen demonstrations against Chinese funded projects. In Democratic Republic of Congo, public concern is growing about loans with few strings attached being used to launder money for projects that are never built. There have been ghost projects in Nigeria as well. There have been increasing international concerns over the role China is playing in the African continent.

This is where India comes in. Unlike China which has concentrated on creating infrastructure and in extracting natural resources, India through its investments of over $11b, has focused on its core competencies of human resources development, information technology, maritime security, education and health care. China’s drive to build infrastructure will yield results only if they create jobs and develop the countries’ productive capacity. The reality is Chinese firms are often accused of employing mostly Chinese workers and doing less to develop local capacities and offering little training and skills development for the African employees. Some Chinese infrastructure run the risk of being just vanity projects.

In contrast, Indian project construction and financing in Africa is aimed at facilitating local participation and development. Indian companies rely more on African talent and do capacity building of the local population. Further, unlike lending from China – and even from IMF and World Bank – for projects which are mostly dictated to or foisted from above, India’s development assistance through concessional lines of credit, grants and capacity building programmes are demand driven and untied. India’s role in Africa, thus, runs in tandem with Africa’s own growth agenda outlined by the African Union Secretariat, the regional bodies or by the individual countries.

Further, the majority of seats for capacity building in Centers of Excellence all over India through the International Technical and Economic Cooperation (ITEC) programme, are reserved for African countries. This programme alone runs into over a billion dollars since its inception in the 1960s. In addition, hundreds of millions of dollars are spent by India on grant assistance projects in Africa which are implemented in a consultative and transparent manner through open tenders. India also offers scholarship programmes for African students in Indian educational institutions.

India has pioneered the tele-education and telemedicine programmes to connect hospitals and educational institutions of all African countries with India through fibre-optic network. India has aided Africa in the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic with the supply of vaccines and equipment to 42 countries, mainly from sub-Saharan Africa. India and South Africa came together in WTO to seek a waiver on the patent regime for Covid-19 vaccinations, the initiative for the most part has been supported by the African nations. 

India has many other advantages over China as well. While China’s political-economic model is attractive, public support for democracy in Africa is very high. India is seen as a country that affords a model of economic development with grassroots democracy, accountability and transparency. For this reason alone, Indian experts, accountants, managers and teachers have remained much sought after in Africa.

Further, India enjoys the advantages of linguistic and cultural affinity. Indian presence in Africa comes with the added advantage of the English language which is widely spoken in Africa. This helps the locals converse with the Indian companies. Indian training and capacity building programmes are also in English language which enables both technological development and absorption in the receiving countries.

The role of the Indian diaspora in Africa, at 3 million strong, is eclectic. The diaspora plays its own bridging role between India and Africa, though it is equally important that the persons of Indian origin remain well integrated in their host countries, this is an aspect that Africa is particularly sensitive to.

India is better geographically connected with the Africa continent, and thus shares its security concerns as well. India considers the Indian ocean rim countries of Africa as critical to its Indo-Pacific strategy, and with many of them India has signed defense and shipping agreements including joint exercises. This is particularly true of the Indian Ocean Island states of Africa which are crucial to India in maintaining the security of sea lanes and in handling the issues of climate change. Indian armed forces training teams are popular and have helped foster a democratic spirit. The role of Indian peacekeepers is much appreciated.

China may, thus, be starting to see fewer benefits from its Africa dealings. At the FOCAC held in Dakar, Senegal in November 2021, China cut its financing over the next three years from $60b at the previous summit to $40b, seen as a sign that China’s relationship with the continent is changing. Locals are increasingly protesting the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects because of their environmental problems in their communities. For all the talk of China’s growing presence in Africa, its economic engagement is surprisingly limited. In 2020, Africa accounted for only 4% of China’s trade with the world. In 2019, Africa accounted for just 2.9% of China’s FDI worldwide. On the other hand, China accounted for 16.4% of Africa’s trade with the world in 2020. China was also the source of $153b in cumulative loans to African countries between 2000 and 2019, giving rise to the phenomenon of debt trap.  

Africa’s economic importance to China is very modest. Africa has little part to play in BRI which is primarily aimed at better penetrating the EU market; Chinese investments under it in Africa are primarily in Egypt and Horn of Africa, along the route to the Suez Canal. If economics does not explain China’s interest in Africa, what does? The quintessence of Sino-African relations is not economic, but geopolitical. Post Tiananmen square was a watershed: where China was shunned by the west, African leaders were seen exchanging visits with Chinese leaders. The fulcrum of its relations with Africa was, thus, to restore the dignity that China had suffered internationally. It continues to use 54 African states to expand the radius of its international influence in the game that China currently plays with the United States.

India and China have growing stakes in Africa and are increasingly competing geopolitically. Both have benefited from the voting patterns of African states in the UN and elsewhere. India’s developing engagement with Africa holds promise of benefits to both the partners based on equality and mutual respect. This is the leitmotif of India’s outreach to Africa through the institutionalized India Africa Summit process pioneered in 2008, which provides a coherent and comprehensive strategy that is inclusive, people-centric, sustainable, and guided by African needs and priorities. India has very wisely built a progressive structure on the foundations of its historic participation in Africa’s freedom, the non-aligned movement and the worldwide struggle against apartheid and repression, that earned India a unique role in the continent.

(The author is a former Indian ambassador and former Joint Secretary, Africa in the Ministry of External Affairs. She tweets:@nchauhanifs Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online. Reproducing this content without permission is prohibited).

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