Two major conferences highlight Africa’s evolving relations with the two Asian giants.
Two major conferences highlight Africa’s evolving relations with the two Asian giants.

In late October, the majority of Africa’s heads of state followed Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s invitation and travelled to New Delhi for the third India-Africa Forum Summit (IAFS). The high-profile summit came at a time when India’s political and economic relations with African states have generally been overshadowed by the more prominent “Sino-African relations” as all action between China and African states is styled. Many observers were expecting the policy-savvy Modi to use the IAFS to introduce a new era of India-Africa relations, potentially even outlining an Indian strategy to address the perceived omnipresence of China in Africa.

While Modi rhetorically made use of the special connections between Africa and India, the summit nevertheless remained within known territory of international approaches to Africa. Modi promised concessional lines of credit and went on to emphasise the significance of Africa as a source of India’s energy imports, as a destination for Indian products, and as diplomatic support in India’s endeavour to become a permanent member in the UN Security Council. In the only regionally specific aspect of the summit, Modi also attempted to win political support from East African states in countering Chinese military expansion in the Indian Ocean.

However, Modi failed to make use of the high-profile summit and present India as a viable alternative to China. Instead of imitating Chinese engagement on the continent, Modi should have tried to build on several key aspects of India-Africa relations: First, the Indian diaspora across East Africa can be politically and economically leveraged by both sides. Far better integrated than their Chinese counterparts, the diaspora plays an important political, economic, and social role. Second, India’s economic linkages with African states are sustainable and better integrated. Indian economic engagement across Africa is not dominated by state-owned enterprises, but rather based on the investment of private firms. Additionally, Indian engagement tends to take place in areas of crucial significance for further African development: pharmaceuticals, telecommunication, transportation, and agriculture. Finally, India’s political approach to Africa has emphasised the development and training of human resources, another key aspect of economic development.

While Modi touched upon these aspects, the results of the IAFS largely continue the Africa policy of former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and are in line with Modi’s economic diplomacy. To the additional detriment of the summit, both African and international media largely ignored the summit in their coverage. This is especially surprising when looking at Africa’s media, given that they should normally have the greatest interest reporting on alternative international partners for African economies. India’s media, at the same time, preferred to largely focus on the sideshow: the planes the African delegations arrived in, the gifts they received, and the shopping sprees that certain delegates embarked on.

While observers are still busy analysing the third IAFS, the next African summit meeting is already around the corner. The sixth Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC VI), taking place in Johannesburg from December 2 to 4, has the potential to politically overshadow Modi’s IAFS. Of all high-profile international summits attended by African heads of state, FOCAC remains the most important.

Expectations for FOCAC VI are as high, if not higher, than they were for India’s IAFS in New Delhi. FOCAC VI takes place at a time of slowing economic growth in China, falling global commodity prices, the slow recovery from Ebola in West Africa, and a rise of terrorism across Africa. Simultaneously, Chinese companies have been experiencing public backlash over a number of issues across Africa, mainly involving illegal activities and environmental violations. Chinese officials have therefore already indicated that FOCAC VI would take a wider, holistic approach to Sino-African relations. The proposed six areas of cooperation – industrial cooperation, financial cooperation, ecological and environmental protection, poverty alleviation, cultural exchanges, peace and security – may include virtually everything or nothing. However, the Chinese rhetoric ahead of FOCAC VI highlights an awareness of the need to broaden the scope of the summit.

Africa continues to represent three things to Chinese and Indian political and economic actors: commodities, markets, and diplomatic support. The Modi administration did not take advantage of its IAFS summit to present itself as a true alternative to Beijing. It remains to be seen which issues Chinese policymakers will ultimately address when meeting with their African counterparts in Johannesburg. Ultimately, the ball remains in the court of African leaders. It is in their best interests to play off both Asian states.