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.
But China has not just lent financial support to secure goodwill. As parts of Africa were wracked by civil war in the 1990s, China used its leverage as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council to ensure affected countries received funds and peacekeeping assistance.
The assistance was partly payback from China for the debt it owed many countries on the continent for backing the People’s Republic of China efforts to be recognized at the United Nations instead of the Republic of China (Taiwan), a shift that finally occurred in 1971. China received significant backing from African nations who themselves felt they had benefitted from the close, revolutionary ties that Mao had forged in the 1960s. China also, in many Africans’ eyes, acted as an even-handed player, accommodating either the Soviet or US position in a given African country depending on the ‘merits’ of their case.
Such ties have given China far better first-hand knowledge of African affairs than India, despite the latter’s closer proximity.
But India does have a crucial advantage—its political system is a lot more appealing than China’s. China may be awash with cash to invest, but numerous questions have already been raised about the effects of China’s investment in Africa, with some questioning whether the honeymoon is over.
India can capitalize on such reservations by ensuring it contributes robustly to peacekeeping forces in Africa, a move that would be smiled upon by the African Union. Indeed, the African Union shouldn’t be seen as the only worthwhile forum for India to court—the Economic Community for the West African States also has security capabilities that India could support.
In addition, India can work creatively to counter China’s use of, for example, former Portuguese colony Macau to court Lusophone countries for trade by turning to its own regions like Goa (another former Portuguese colony) and Pondicherry (a former French colony that could be useful in nurturing ties with Africa’s Francophone nations).
A century and more ago, Western colonizers of Africa had also subjugated Indian and Chinese interests. Fast forward to the 21st century and these two nations have an opportunity to project their might through an independent Africa.
Balaji Chandramohan is editor of World Security Network. He can be reached at: [email protected]