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Indian and African relations

Indian is a major driver-economy in Asia. Like China it is looking to a dynamic future and attempting to position itself to ensure it has access to a future supply of raw materials and to future export markets. India is a country and Africa is a continent. China has been very active on the African continent. What is India trying to achieve? What are the similarities and differences when its developing policies are compared to those of China?

In early April 2008, India was host to a two-day India-Africa Summit in the capital New Delhi. Although only fourteen African countries attended this was a significant all-Africa event as it included representatives from the Mediterranean countries as well as from sub-Saharan Africa. The summit is the outcome of significant diplomatic activity. India’s Minister for External Affairs (Prefab Mukherjee) had been to South Africa, shortly before the meeting, for example, to sign agreements to boost bilateral ties between South Africa and India. Such bilateral agreements, becoming more significant in a world where multilateral agreement has been stalled, do not come into being overnight. India, South Africa and Brazil are also engaged in interesting trade discussions and political cooperation within the framework of the WTO. The Summit itself was preceded by an India-Africa Business Conclave in March. It was also bolstered by discussion concerning development project and development aid. The Summit was also surrounded by cultural events.

There is no doubt that the concerns are economic. India is a significant Asian driver economy, home of developing multi-national enterprises and a significant trading partner with the African continent. India is looking to secure its position on the continent in the light of its own resources needs (less acute than those of the Chinese but significant nonetheless) and in the light of Chinese economic and political ambitions. Indian commentators wish to play down this aspect and stress the historical links between India and Africa, particularly East Africa, and the contribution India made to the process of decolonization. This is a form of window-dressing and needs to be seen as such. Some African political and economic commentators have been skeptical, given the Indian Diaspora (roughly two million people of Indian descent live in a variety of African countries) and the fears of another ‘scramble for Africa’. Having India compete with China, however, can only be a good thing for exports from the African continent. China still has the economic edge when it comes to African exports but Indian tariff reductions will impact on the export prospects of poorer countries. The issues however they are dressed are about trade, aid and political influence in a changing world. India needs to orientate its foreign and trade policy to a new set of international circumstances, as do the countries of Africa. It may be paralleling moves made by the Chinese but it is seeking a different kind of relationship.

By stressing historical ties and mutuality India hopes that it will avoid any suggestion of crude exploitation of the African economic environment. By stressing a political basis for cooperation as specified by the Delhi Declaration, India is illustrating its common interests with African countries on the international stage. These include food security, climate change and the Doha round (Western food production subsidies in particular) and some continental representation on the United Nations Security Council. Security issues are also important as sea trade has significance for countries such as South Africa as well as for India. By stressing aid and the aid relationship, India is presenting itself as making a significant contribution to African social and economic development activities. At the start of the conference the Prime Minister of India (Manmohan Singh) announced a huge package of development grants for implementation over a five year period.

India is, unlike China, a democracy and its trade, aid and political cooperation subject to domestic democratic scrutiny. Its moves in Africa will increasingly bring its investment strategies, trade and aid polices to the attention of the wider world. It has a better record than China but like China it has an involvement with some unsavory regimes. The India-Africa Summit did not get much coverage in the United States. It deserves more.