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Synthesis/Regeneration 59   (Fall 2012)

India and China Scramble for Africa

by Jemima Pierre

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s attendance at the Second Africa-India Summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in May 2011 marked his fourth visit to the continent in his eight years in office. For Singh, such summits are designed to “respond to the needs and priorities of Africa and for India.” The relationship between Africa and India is one “based on equality, mutual trust and a consultative and transparent approach,” he continued. “It is a living embodiment of South-South cooperation.”

For the Indian state, it also signifies the triumphant success of its “bilateral” relationship with Africa, one that has granted lucrative access to Africa’s vast resources while cultivating influence with Africa’s political elite. Other Indian and international commentators, however, hail these summits as India’s challenge to China’s oversized role on the continent. Meanwhile, the ever-compromised African Union seems to follow Robert Mugabe’s assertion that Africa has “turned east, where the sun rises, and given [its] back to the west, where the sun sets.”

It is the Chinese who are generally heralded as purveyors of new terms of trade with Africa, but the Indians are not far behind. While both countries argue that their engagement with the continent is non-ideological and has no imperialist goals, the new relations of trade look much like the old. Once again, African human and material resources are at stake. African sovereignty may not be far behind.

…India and China are…facing daunting land and resource shortages…

India’s trade with Africa stood at an estimated $46 billion in 2010, a huge increase from $3 billion in 2001. India says it will reach $70 billion by 2015. But this is still much less than China’s trade with Africa, which is currently estimated at $126 billion. Apart from the trading relationships, India and China have granted the continent large loans and extended lines of credit—often without the “conditionalities” that typically accompany IMF/World Bank loans. For example, at the latest Africa-India summit, Singh promised $5 billion in credit lines over the next three years for development projects. He also offered $700 million for new institutions and training programs along with $300 million for an Ethiopia-Djibouti railway line.

India is stressing that its approach to Africa is different than China’s because it depends primarily on its own private sector to secure investments in the continent while the state exchanges technological training for access to the continent’s resources. The country admits it was “caught cold by China,” losing bids for oil rights and infrastructure projects. As a result, New Delhi has positioned itself as an alternative to Beijing, promising development support, financing for infrastructure projects, and building educational and training institutes. At the same time, India was said to be “the most acquisitive nation in Africa in 2010.” Indian private firms are acquiring African assets and expanding rapidly into African markets. The biggest of these firms is Bharti Airtel, Ltd, a telecommunications company that now has business in at least 15 African countries. India’s footprint on the African continent is only growing.

Before we start making allusions to the “spirit of Bandung” and extolling the virtues of “south-south” cooperation, let’s remember some facts. First, the changing global political economy now has a new set of players—BRIC nations vying with one another for global dominance in the attempt to supplant US and European hegemony. But unlike Brazil, India and China are also facing daunting land and resource shortages as well as lack of productive outlets for their colossal populations and markets for their products. This is why both countries have parallel interests and investments in Africa: land and resource extraction, and new markets for manufactured products.

Second, Africa is quickly becoming the largest market for both countries to dump their cheap commodities. For example, China is already causing a problem for local African markets. According to one observer, “The problem can be seen in the market stalls of the Senegalese capital Dakar, where cheap Chinese imports, from shoes to medicines, elbow rival products aside.” India, meanwhile, also sees Africa as an important supplier and customer to drive its own economic growth.

“…cheap Chinese imports, from shoes to medicines, elbow rival products aside.”

Third, while the loans do not have the same “conditionalities” as those from the US and European controlled IMF and World Bank, they do not emerge from some benevolent or altruistic ethos. They are meant to fuel the economy of the lending country. A recent editorial in The Hindu, while adamant that India’s interests in Africa are honorable and not imperialistic, also inadvertently reminded us that the “beneficiaries [of India’s lines of credit to the continent] will be Indian companies and suppliers whom recipient governments are obliged to buy from.”

In all of this, of course, there is the continued paternalism toward Africa. Even as Indian leaders speak of India and Africa’s cultural linkages and mutual struggles against European colonialism, there is a way India sees itself in a category different from those on the continent. An Indian diplomat reflected this not-so-rare attitude while extolling India’s “better” approach to Africa: “Apart from the fact that China is a much richer country, India’s initiatives are completely different because we are helping the Africans to learn how to fish. The Chinese, in contrast, are catching the fish and giving it to the Africans.” One has to wonder how Africans fed themselves in the thousands of years before the coming of the Europeans, Chinese, and Indians.

Finally, how exactly does Africa benefit from Asia’s scramble for its resources? The African Union and many African governments have welcomed the attention that comes from Asia’s resource needs. To them, it provides an alternative to dealings with the West. But even a brief review of the African end of these various deals should give us pause. Engagement with India, as with China, is based on the trading of raw materials and natural resources for generally limited infrastructure development and technological training. But how will the continent facilitate growth and development if it continues to be stripped of its land and its resources?

In The African Roots of War, W. E. B. Du Bois wrote: “Today Africa is being enslaved by the theft of her land and natural resources…This is a deliberate attempt to force the Negroes to work on farms and in mines and kitchens for low wages. All over Africa has gone this shameless monopolizing of land and natural resources to force poverty on the masses and reduce them to the ‘dumb-driven-cattle’ stage of labor activity.” While Du Bois could not have anticipated the rise of the BRIC nations and the shifting of global power—that does not include Black folks—we must remember that there are many ways to exploit the African continent. And many nations willing to do the exploiting.

Jemima Pierre, a Haitian native, is an anthropologist who teaches at Vanderbilt University and specializes in African culture and politics. She is also an editor and columnist for Black Agenda Report.

[26 aug 12]

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