There is a need to address the dragon in the room and answer the question: how do the policies and strategies of China and India compare as far as the African theatre is concerned?
It is best to begin with the basics. Is there a serious competition raging between China and India to seek allies and partners, bases and facilities, trade and projects and influence in general in Africa? Are the two Asian nations in a race to capture the heart and soul of Africa? Surprisingly, answers from Chinese and Indian officials to such questions are often quite similar – but with different nuances.
The Chinese would dismiss the existence of competition, pointing to the figures of trade, investment, credits, projects and frequency of high-level conferences and VIP visits to stress that China is far ahead of India on all these parameters. The very idea of competition with India may be found insulting or at least erroneous and flawed by China’s Africa experts.
On the other hand, Indian officials routinely assert that India is not in competition with anyone in Africa, their argument being that India has a long-standing and unique relationship which cannot be compared with any other power’s ties with Africa. However, discerning scholars in India maintain that the growth of India’s political and economic cooperation with Africa in the past two decades was driven, partially but significantly, by the dramatic transformation of China-Africa partnership.
Beyond the views of Chinese and Indian sides, scholars and media of third countries are never tired of talking or writing about the India-China competition in Africa. In a recent analysis of expert opinions, Maria Siow stressed that the two Asian countries were fully engaged in extending their outreach and overtures to African nations, thus indicating that they were competing for power and influence. Her conclusion: “But given that China’s and India’s presence and influence in Africa are likely to remain for the foreseeable future, India’s advantages might turn out to be more important in the longer term.”
A mix of similarities and differences are noticeable between the strategies of the two countries, once a deep analysis of their policy approaches and performances in Africa is undertaken.
First, the similarities. Both China and India have similar goals, judged by their pronouncements and actions. They desire to contribute to Africa’s socio-economic development; extend assistance in diverse sectors of human endeavour; help it grow into a consequential role-player in world affairs; and seek Africa’s natural resources, hydrocarbons and markets for themselves. They also solicit Africa’s support for their political agenda and leadership (e.g., UN reform and the proposed expansion of the Security Council in India’s case and acceptance of ‘peaceful rise’ and global assertiveness in China’s case).
Then, the differences. The fundamental trait on which China and India diverge stems from their long-term goals. Going by the nature of policies followed, it is evident that China looks for dominance, control and strategic gains. India, on the other hand, aims at little more than a partnership that is based on equality, mutual respect and benefit. Ian Taylor suggested that “Indian activity in Africa” represented “a middle ground between China’s profit-maximizing and largely statist approach and the much-resented intrusive conditionalities associated with western polices.”
In effect, thus, if there is competition, it is between the Chinese model anchored on authoritarianism and state-led capitalism and the Indian model of democracy with development, which moves at a slower pace but is more consultative, equitable and inclusive. Abhishek Mishra compared the two approaches to conclude aptly: “Unlike China, India’s partnership with Africa is based on a model of cooperation that is responsive, demand-driven, free of conditions and one that liberates Africa’s potential, rather than constraining its future.”
But this is contrasted with the takeaways from an interesting study by Mao Keji and Tang Xiaoyang who argued that in Africa, India and China have been quite similar, but “they differ sharply in their capacities to enhance Africa’s much-wanted industrialisation.” The two scholars suggested the desirability of combining “India’s soft power assets” with “China’s industrial relocation and capital exodus” in order to assist Africa’s industrial progress. However, given the complexities of India-China relations, which experienced a sharp deterioration in wake of the border conflict in the summer of 2020, the suggested formula of China-India cooperation in Africa is quite unrealistic.
The Covid era brought into sharp focus the India-China competition in Africa. Both Asian powers raced to dispatch medicines, test kits and other medical equipment to their African partners. Later, once the two vaccines made in India and the vaccines made in China became available, both countries strove to share them with Africa. India’s reputation as ‘the pharmacy of the world,’ its past record in producing and distributing drugs at affordable price to combat AIDS and its proactive ‘Vax diplomacy’ won global admiration. An objective view suggested that China did less well in this realm.
The African perspective on the perceived competition between China and India is also relevant here. Africans welcome more donors, friends and partners, for multiplicity represents more options and larger assistance. African nations have no intention to choose one over the other for all their needs. Presumably, they would go with a partner that meets their requirements in a particular domain at a particular time. Inevitably, this analysis leads us to the conclusion below.
China’s strategic approach, consistency and persistence, a thick cheque book, technological capacity and vast resources give her a formidable edge. However, India’s advantages – old familiarity; deep mutual empathy born of the shared colonial experience; legacy of leaders like Gandhi, Nkrumah, Nehru and Mandela; geographical and cultural proximity; soft power; Indian diaspora; reputation for appropriate and affordable technology; and strides in IT, pharma, digitisation and capacity building – provide a potent counterpoise. This mix is sufficient to keep India in the race, armed with the stamina of a long-distance runner. The competition for Africa’s affections, involving not only China and India but also other nations, promises to be a marathon. External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar observed, “…India offers Africa an honest partnership, and room to maximize its space under the sun and multiply its options…what we can do is to be Africa’s most steadfast partner.”
A considered assessment indicates at least three takeaways for India from the Chinese experience in Africa.
- First, New Delhi would do well to further deepen its political commitment to Africa.
- Second, it has no option but to set aside sizeable financial resources to fuel cooperation projects with African nations.
- Third, it needs to increase its pace and capability on project execution and bridge the gap between declaration and delivery.
This book excerpt was first published in Hindustan Times.
This article is based on excerpts from Chapter 11 ‘The Next Decade’ of India-Africa Relations: Changing Horizons by Rajiv Bhatia, Routledge 2022.
Ambassador Rajiv Bhatia is Distinguished Fellow, Foreign Policy Studies, Gateway House and a former high commissioner to South Africa, Lesotho and Kenya.