From the southern tip of their own continent and across to Latin America, Asia’s two rising and aspiring powers are set to compete for supremacy and the mantle of superpower status. But it’s in between these two points that the biggest competition between China and India is set to unfold. Forget Central Asia—Africa is the scene of the next ‘great game.’
The reason why the two will zero in on Africa is simple—both have burgeoning, resource hungry populations and rapidly growing economies. If they are to have any chance of sustained competition with developed Western economies, they will need access to the rich natural resources that Africa can provide.
China already looks to have a significant edge on its rival, with two-way trade with Africa set to top $100 billion this year, compared to about a third of that between India and Africa last year.
Beijing has, after all, been actively courting allies through the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, which since October 2000 has had regular summits attended by the Chinese premier and dozens of African heads of state.
And India’s response was a relative flop. It tried to follow in China’s footsteps by launching the India–Africa Forum Summit. However, at its first and only summit so far, in April 2008, only 14 African countries were represented out of a possible 53.
Part of the problem is that India’s External Affairs Ministry is still infused with what’s known in diplomatic circles as ‘Pakistani Syndrome’—an unhealthy focus among Indian diplomats at the highest echelons of government, including the national security advisor, on India’s western neighbour.
China’s African ambitions, in contrast, are not hamstrung by such regional concerns. Although the Chinese dragon is surrounded by what it sees as a sea of sharks wanting to curtail its influence in East Asia and the Pacific—namely India, Japan, Russia, the United States and Russia—it has a broad enough worldview and understanding of international relations to continue to focus on the valuable development of Africa.
Another Chinese advantage has been that many countries in Africa, including Angola, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Namibia and Sudan, feel a sense of obligation toward China after it helped them when they were confronted with the spectre of civil war following the demise of the Soviet Union.
After a surge of attention on the continent during the Cold War, the US and Russia lost interest in spending money in Africa, leaving instability—and space for China to step in. The gaps the two big powers left that China has sought to fill were big ones, with many African nations having depended heavily on their Cold War sponsors in the 1960s and 1970s for state-building assistance after securing independence from their colonial masters. Withdrawal pulled the rug from under any prospects for stability.