Prime Minister Narendra Modi greets African leaders during a trade summit.
Snapshot
  • The benefits of establishing strong bonds with Africa must keep India motivated to take on even the unfair competition that the Chinese offer

The recent visit by Indian Vice-President Hamid Ansari to Africa was his second in two years. This had come close on the heels of President Pranab Mukherjee’s visit in June last year and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s two visits, one in 2016 and another in early 2015. Starting with the last India-Africa Forum Summit, New Delhi has exhibited a renewed vigour in pursuing its long-neglected ties with the African nations. The primary reason behind these increased engagements has been to counter China, which has also ramped up its own efforts to have a larger footprint in Africa. Albeit India is far behind China in its quantum of trade with Africa, it has been steadfast in making inroads to the African economy.

This race between India and China has also made the world take stock of Africa’s undervalued economic importance in global trade. The attention that Africa received has helped it to take a relook at its partners and drift away from the donor-receiver relationship it has had with the Western powers. The US and Europe have for long exploited the region’s resources without actually helping the Africans set up a sustainable growth model. In this context, Africa also sees India and China as the new development partners, and is equally willing to have long partnerships with the Asian giants while learning from their respective success stories.

The African partnership is going to benefit India in multiple ways. Starting with strengthening energy and food security to gaining a diplomatic backing for its permanent seat at the United Nations Security Council, the reaps of establishing strong bonds with Africa must keep India motivated to take on even the unfair competition that the Chinese offer. While China may easily undercut India’s stakes with its huge line of credits and investments, what may work in India’s favour in the long run is its strong Indian diaspora, its deep cultural connect and its proximity with the African continent. Along with these natural advantages, India should look to craft a strategy to mitigate the Chinese competition.

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One strategy that India has persistently employed to counter the Chinese is by projecting India as a true partner, an old friend and someone, who seeks to create a win-win scenario. Although this approach has created a goodwill for India, it hasn’t helped in actually countering China at critical junctures. For example, China has ruthlessly used its political influence to damage India’s bid for oil refineries in Angola. With India’s energy demands, the need to gain edge over China has also grown. Like China, India cannot afford to bid exorbitant prices and win contracts. It will have to resort to other means and carefully play with its strategic plans and investments. The fact of the matter is China can do almost everything that India can. Clearly, the ‘good-boy’ image will not help India in winning over Chinese competition. It can be done by either money power or strong political influence. Exercising the first option doesn’t looks like a feasible plan in the near future. So how should India go about the need to create a political influence over the African leaders?

To gain a strategic advantage over China, India will have to target few specific sectors that can potentially add value to Brand India in the long run. One such window of opportunity where India can outdo China is delivering maritime security to African nations. Point 15 of African Union’s Vision 2063 document speaks about sustainable developmental model to foster the aspirations of blue economy. Since development and security are inter-linked, establishing a strong maritime surveillance and control system will be an essential part of this aspiration African Union has. India, by aligning some of its development efforts in this direction can fortify its image of “equal and sensitive” partner and eventually gain staunch political affiliations.

During the third India-Africa Forum Summit that happened in 2015, Prime Minister Modi emphasised on India’s extended support to help African nations build capacity in maritime security. In fact, maritime security has been a long-standing priority for India. Since 2008, Indian Navy has ferried as many as 3,000 merchant ships in the Gulf of Aden and has largely eliminated pirate-infested waters in the region. This has helped India to broaden its Indian Ocean presence and establish a stronghold in international waters. The threats off the Somali coast has also seemingly come down in the recent times. However, India has played “anti-piracy” agenda as central to its maritime policy and has done little in terms of institution building or transferring technologies relating to maritime security. There is also a new maritime security worry that has emerged along the western coastal lines of Africa.

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The Gulf of Guinea, near Nigeria, has captured international attention by becoming the new hotspot for piracy. Unlike the Somali pirates, who hijack ships for money, the pirates in the Gulf of Guinea have been targeting cargoes of oil. Better arms and superior technological use has helped the pirates to efficiently carry out hijackings. India so far has not involved itself in the anti-piracy efforts in West Africa. This may be because the region is very far and India may think it is politically unimportant. The irony however is, India’s major partners on West Africa, Nigeria and to an extent Angola, have been primary victims of the piracy. Nigeria and Angola make up one fifth of India’s total oil imports as the number is poised to double in coming years. So the stakes are going to be high in the coming years. (If they aren’t already)

The Economic Community of West African States has established a Multinational Maritime Coordination Centre to keep the region out of piracy but it still lacks a clear-cut strategy and the security infrastructure. The international community has also shown little interest in combating pirates in this region as most of the piracy happens within territorial limits of the coastal nations, where only national law enforcement agencies have legal authority to operate. This has increased the regional expectations for capacity-building and technology transfer from nations like India.

India must do a balancing act with its growing oil needs and the regional demands. India, with its successful maritime experience, should take the lead and help these nations in training and setting up critical technology infrastructure for better surveillance and security in the region. It must offer patrolling assets and remote surveillance systems to monitor their respective maritime domains. This will give India the accreditation for collaborating in a crucial sector and establishing sustainable maritime security model for these nations. As we prepare for the next summit, we will have to put on menu, the issues that African leadership likes to see. The investments must be long term and the development must be inclusive and sustainable. Maritime security to the continent and not the nations on Indian Ocean rim alone will be a good start.

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