Africa: The new frontier for India vs China power-play

Africa: The new frontier for India vs China power-play
Africa: The new frontier for India vs China power-play

India Inc. CEO lays out the sharp contrast between India′s benign partnership and China's projection of hard power in Africa and how it could become the template for Indian strategic-economic-political outreach programmes elsewhere. Looking at India's efforts at making inroads into Africa, I'm reminded of an old proverb, probably of Chinese origin, which says: “A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.” Fortunately for India, that step has been widely welcomed in Africa, which views India as a benign partner that is helping countries in that continent meet and overcome challenges relating to healthcare, availability of cheap live-saving drugs, education and digital penetration, among several other initiatives that leverage, harness and project India's soft power. Then, African nations are major partners in the International Solar Alliance, which going by the ambitious plans of India's enterprising energy minister, Piyush Goyal, will benefit from, among other things, Indian grid technology. This is in sharp contrast to China's projection of its hard power - in the form of new ports, roads and railway projects. India can't hope to compete with its northern neighbour on this front. It doesn't have that kind of money to throw around. And even if it did, the land of Mahatma Gandhi, who cut his political teeth in South Africa and inspired Nelson Mandela's struggle to free his countrymen from the curse of apartheid, still recoils at the thought of behaving like a neo-imperial power a la China in Africa. Many in Africa view China as a foreign power that is out to grab that continent's natural resources for its own benefit. It is not uncommon for Chinese companies to ship thousands of Chinese workers to implement large infrastructure projects in Africa, depriving locals of employment and other opportunities. Much to the angst of the locals, the sight of Chinese hawkers competing to sell even basic items such as chicken in food markets is not so uncommon in several African countries. That is why India, which entered Africa as a serious player much after China, is still in the race. It is truly the next frontier for Indian diplomacy and businesses. Pharma companies like Cipla and Ranbaxy have earned India lots of goodwill by making anti-HIV drugs available at a fraction of the price charged by European and US drug giants. The Tatas, Mahindras, Bharti Airtel and Kirloskars have also established significant beachheads - and even leadership positions - in Africa in a range of industries. The goodwill generated by India's benign presence in Africa has led to thousands of African students - including the children of many African leaders - choosing to pursue higher studies in India. This has improved people-to-people contacts between Africa and India. But a few recent incidents of violence against African students in Indian cities have caused some anxiety, which is thankfully being addressed by the Indian government. Hopefully, these will prove to be nothing more than a storm in a teacup. Despite the headlines, these incidents are actually an aberration. But I can't help feeling that India missed a trick or two over the last two decades. After all, there is a history going back more than two centuries of Gujarati traders settling in Africa, assimilating with local communities and plying their trade as partners. There's a strong personal connection here, as well. My parents emigrated to East Africa in the 1950s following the footsteps of previous generations. My grandparents, like many others were not business people, but craftsmen and workers who toiled to build railways, roads and bridges (physically and metaphorically) side by side with local communities. My elder brother was born in Dar es Salaam. This powerful Africa-India-UK diaspora connect remains and is again rapidly growing in numbers and influence. Prime Minister Modi's government would do well to bring this nexus into his big tent diplomacy programme. I have frequently advocated that India and countries where India shares common values and strategic concerns such as with the UK should enhance their relationships beyond their respective borders. Africa is undoubtedly the next frontier and opportunities must be explored. Reviving India's engagement with the Commonwealth would also be a good start. Indian trade with Africa adds up to a little more than $70 billion per annum compared to China's bilateral trade of $220 billion. Clearly, India has a long way to go before it can even claim to be on the same page as the Asian dragon. But Prime Minister Narendra Modi's initiative to rebuild old bridges with Africa could well become the template for Indian strategic-economic-political outreach programmes elsewhere. Manoj Ladwa is the founder of India Inc. and chief executive of MLS Chase Group @manojladwa

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