India taking on China in Africa

The world’s two most populous countries, China and India, are now seriously competing with each other to engage resource-rich Africa, thereby imparting a new dimension to South-South relations. From April 7-9, New Delhi is hosting heads of government of 12 African nation-states and a similar number of regional economic groupings. Many see this as a modest answer by India to the grand Africa summit that Beijing hosted in 2006.

Among heads of government expected are Thabo Mbeki of South Africa, Abdelaziz Bouteflika of Algeria, Joseph Kabila Kabange of Congo, Mwai Kibaki of Kenya, John Kufuor of Ghana, Yoweri Kaguta Museveni of Uganda, Maitre Abdoulaye Wade of Senegal, Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia, Tertius Zongo of Burkina Faso and Jakaya Mrisho Kikwete of Tanzania.

The New Delhi meeting will be attended by leading functionaries of the African Union, various regional economic communities and the New Partnership for Africa’s Development. Notable absentees will be Muammar Gaddafi of Libya and Hosni Mubarak of Egypt. While this is the first time India is organising such a large summit of African leaders, this country has had long links with the continent. “Indian traders once sold glass beads to an eager African market (and) now its expertise centres on science and technology,” observes a media release of the Johannesburg-based South African Institute of International Affairs.

India has participated in projects relating to rural electrification in Mozambique and Ethiopia, railways in Senegal and Mali, cement in Congo and computer training in Lesotho. Indian companies are involved in building Ghana’s National Assembly and military barracks in Sierra Leone. Private corporate groups in India have had long-standing ties with African countries. For instance, the Tata group has a presence in 14 countries in areas such as hotels, telecommunications, hydro power and transportation. The word ‘Tata’ is synonymous with ‘bus’ in a country like Uganda, writes Seema Sirohi, Indian journalist for the Outlook magazine.

While annual two-way trade between India and Africa has gone up fivefold from five billion dollars to $25 billion over the last five years, this volume is half that of Africa’s export-import trade with China. Indian officials, speaking off-the-record, say China’s economic strategy is more aggressive than that of India’s and basically aimed at capturing Africa’s mineral resources like oil, copper and manganese.

In a paper, Navdeep Suri, India’s consul-general in Johannesburg has written: “We cannot match China dollar-for-dollar nor do we have the command economy where state-owned companies can be ordered to pursue the government’s directive regardless of their own bottomline.” India’s Minister of State for External Affairs Anand Sharma, while stating that the New Delhi summit would “help the pace and spirit of historic and time-tested ties between India and Africa gather momentum”, has argued that it “would not be correct” to see India-Africa relations as “competition with any other country”.

Indian journalist Seema Sirohi, who spoke to influential South African minister Essop Pahad, quoted him saying that while he wanted to engage with both India and China, the two countries would have to compete. “Let the best man win,” he remarked. — IPS