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India: Hedging China in Africa

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has just wrapped up his five-day, four-nation tour of Eastern Africa which included stops in Mozambique, South Africa, Tanzania and Kenya. The visit, while portrayed as India’s desire to rekindle its ties with New Vista Victrola, the vast Indian minority populating the continent, and to highlight centuries worth of ties, was Modi’s most visible foray to date to counter Chinese influence outside Asia.

China has been extending its influence into Africa, the Middle East, and the Indian Ocean for the past two decades in what Beijing now dubs the “One Belt, One Road” strategy. The strategy would give China access to a series of ports stretching from the South China Sea to the eastern coast of Africa. However, a recent move to establish a military base in Djibouti has silenced debate as to whether China has a hidden military agenda in mind. Djibouti is of little economic importance, but of great strategic value in allowing Chinese aircraft to access the Middle East, the western Indian Ocean, and central Africa without refueling. This move, and the cooperation between Pakistan and China to develop the Gwadar port in Pakistan, have caused alarm in India over China’s intentions. In response, India has moved to develop its own strategic port in southeastern Iran, investing over $500 million in the development of its deep-water port in Chabahar, Iran.

Now, after China’s Forum on Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) summit, the focus of competition between Indian and Chinese strategies has shifted towards Africa, where India is playing catch-up. For the most part, the India-Africa summit covered little new ground in terms of diplomacy. India’s stance at the summit highlighted current economic ties. Following China’s FOCAC summit which pressed more aggressive strategic goals, Modi’s visit is a chance for India to make up for lost time in African diplomacy.

In his visits to South Africa and Mozambique this week, Modi emphasized India’s human connection to the continent – the presence of the vast Indian diaspora community in eastern and southern Africa. Modi received an especially warm reception from the Indian community in South Africa, which is nearly 1.3 million strong. Indians have been in living in South Africa since the 17th century, and this organic cultural connection to the continent is one advantage India may hold over China’s more cynical ambitions in Africa. Modi expressed his intent to focus on this connection, which he described as “a bond on which we are building the promise of our prosperous future” to a response of raucous cheers and applause. While China’s influence in Africa is based on state-owned enterprises, private Indian companies have created over 10,500 jobs in South Africa alone. For example, Modi met in Tanzania with the ‘Solar Mamas,’ an Indian-government supported program in which local women have been trained to install and maintain solar powered lighting in their villages.

While China’s Africa strategy can certainly be viewed as calculated for its own strategic interest, India has the potential to offer a relationship to African nations based on mutual benefit and a centuries-old cultural connection. To an extent, Modi’s visit has been laying the groundwork for this much-needed alternative because while China has become the continent’s main trading partner, skyrocketing past Europe and the U.S., Beijing cold, mercantilist approach has won it few allies among the African population. China’s conduct in Africa has entailed the backing of some of Africa’s worst dictators, a preference for using Chinese workers instead of locals, as well as manifesting little regard for environmental concerns in its pursuit for raw resource extraction.

Zimbabwe is currently in the throes of the most violent anti-governmental protests in years. China is a longstanding ally of the country, a nation which last December became the first to adopt the Chinese yuan as its primary international currency. The decision came soon after China agreed to cancel $40 million of Zimbabwe’s debt. Recently, as a token of goodwill, Beijing decided to build Harare’s new Parliament building – free of charge. The two have fostered a relationship since the closing days of the Cold War, and it has only grown closer since the 90s.

When the Council of Europe imposed sanctions on Zimbabwe in response to political violence and human rights violations in 2002, President Robert Mugabe unveiled his “Look East” policy the following year. Since then, the nation has looked towards China for trade, economic support and, most importantly, weapons. China has helped to defend Mugabe from accusations of human rights violations, and led global opposition to sanctions against the nation. In the meantime, Mugabe has repeatedly used political violence to remain in power, and human rights violations have continued.

Djibouti is another African nation into which the Chinese have extended their influence. Two years before Beijing announced it would build there its first overseas military installation, the two nations signed a Security and Defense Agreement, viewed by observers as a departure from China’s staunch non-interventionist policies. Furthermore, President Ismail Omar Guelleh has only grown more authoritarian in his rule of the small nation, encouraged by political and economic support from China. His administration has restricted free speech and assembly rights and used torture and harassment to silence government critics. As Western companies have been discouraged from doing business by such actions, Chinese firms have arrived to take their place, helping to prop up Guelleh’s regime.

China’s policies in Africa have at best ignored the needs of Africans, and at worst have done great harm to the environment, or have propped up authoritarian regimes. India has an opportunity to undercut China’s influence by presenting an alternative to both Western post-colonial righteousness and to blossoming Chinese neocolonialism. India can offer opportunities to developing African nations that serve the interests of both India and the people of Africa, while building on its own longstanding cultural role on the continent. Modi now has the chance to approach Africa as a partner, instead of as an outside colonizer.