Op-Ed: Can India keep pace with China in Africa?


With China’s top-level Africa forum set to begin in Beijing on 3-4 September, many outsiders not invited to the party will be watching closely. Among them will be China’s populous neighbour, and sometimes rival, India.

India has its own Africa summit, a triennial event, coming soon. And, like China, its trade with African has grown in leaps and bounds over the last decade. All too often, however, New Delhi’s attention on Africa has tended to fade after official visits.

This time it should stay tuned. Africa can no longer be viewed as intermittent and peripheral interest. Instead, the continent should be seen as part and parcel of New Delhi’s challenge of regaining lost geostrategic ground from Beijing’s expansionist endeavours. China’s Belt and Road Initiative along with its growing military activities across the Indian Ocean are already serving to redefine India’s own relationship with Africa.

India has long-standing political ties with the continent. It has a deeply integrated diaspora there. Its founding fathers supported African countries as they broke the bonds of colonialism and apartheid. Many African countries joined forces with India against hegemonic powers during the Cold War under the non-aligned movement.

But today, it is largely commerce that is driving India’s ties with Africa. In 2002-03, two-way trade was a paltry $6.5 billion. By 2012-13, it had risen to over $70 billion as India’s domestic economy continued its 50-year run of accelerated growth.

The increase has been so rapid that if China were not present, India would be Africa’s largest trading partner. At $63 billion in 2017-18, its trade with Africa easily surpassed that with the US and European partners. But China is in Africa, and in a big way. Chinese trade with Africa’s 54 countries stood at $172 billion in 2017, nearly three times India’s.

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