Recently, India and African countries joined hands demanding an IPR waiver for COVID19 Vaccines. Also, India and Africa often hold a common position on global platforms and work for the interests of third-world countries. This resonates with Mahatma Gandhi’s statement on India-Africa relations that there will be a “commerce of ideas and services and not of raw materials and goods like imperialist powers” between them.
Moreover, recent cooperation between India and developing and underdeveloped African countries at the WTO and other international forums proves Gandhi’s vision correct.
Although relations between India and African countries date back to the pre-colonial era, the African continent was not given the priority it deserved by the Indian side. The new world order, driven by the rise of China, India, and Brazil, has reactivated the interests of rising powers and existing powers in the resource-rich African continent.
If we glance at India-Africa ties, it appears that there is a transition in the nature of India’s involvement in Africa. During the 1950s, the Indian approach was led by ‘ideational ‘ and ‘pragmatic ‘ policies. India supported the freedom of African countries from imperialist powers. After the 1990s, with the opening of the Indian economy to the international market, India’s engagement was guided mainly by economic investment in the African region.
Nonetheless, India’s engagement is not limited to economic and commercial interests only. In recent times, India has also contributed to the UN Peacekeeping Missions and humanitarian aid in the African continent. Under the Vaccine Maitri initiative, India supplied 24.7 million doses of Made in India Covid vaccines to 42 countries in Africa. What makes India’s approach in Africa different from other countries is India’s capacity-building activities, support for democratic practices, processes, institutions and people-to-people engagement.
If we go through former diplomat Rajiv Bhatia’s book ‘India-Africa ‘ Relations: Changing Horizons, it is clear that India is lagging behind China in investment in Africa. However, India is the third largest trading partner in Africa. In 2019-20, India-Africa trade increased to 66.7 billion US dollars. Around 8 per cent of Indian imports are from Africa, and around 9 per cent of African imports are from India.
Although India cannot compete with China and the US in terms of ‘Chequebook Diplomacy,’ it can collaborate with other like-minded partners in Africa. The increasing presence of the Peoples’ Liberation Army in the Indian Ocean Region has alarmed many countries. The Asia-Africa Growth Corridor is one such example where India and Japan are cooperating with each other for the development of infrastructure in Asia and Africa.
Not only are trade ties significant, but cultural ties and people-to-people contact are also remarkable features of India-Africa collaboration.
Mahatma Gandhi’s cooperation with the natives of Africa for their freedom is still cherished in both India and Africa. During the colonial period, people from India migrated to Africa to work in plantations and vice versa. Moreover, around 3 million strong Indian diaspora in Africa is an asset for India to further its tool of ‘soft diplomacy ‘.
To understand the reasons behind the increasing interests of rising powers in Africa, it is essential to know certain determinants of foreign policy. Geostrategic location is the first determinant of foreign policy. Africa is surrounded by the Indian Ocean on its eastern flank and by the Atlantic Ocean on its western boundary. In addition, it also controls various trade routes and straits.
Africa’s location in the Indian Ocean makes it a favourite ground for the ‘New Great Game ‘ in the region. Africa is critical to India’s security, especially the Horn of Africa region, due to its proximity to India. Threats such as piracy, radicalism, and organised crime emerge from this region. In addition to these threats, China’s military presence in Djibouti is more alarming for a rules-based order and freedom of navigation in the Indian Ocean region. Djibouti can be considered as another pearl in China’s ‘String of Pearl ‘ of military alliances.
Nearly 80 per cent of the global oil trade takes place through the Indian Ocean region, which gives geostrategic importance to the countries bordering the Indian Ocean. After geostrategic location, the ideology of the ruling government is the second most important determinant of foreign policy. During Nehru’s era, he declared that the Indian diaspora in Africa and African natives would be treated alike. When Indira Gandhi came to power, the stand was different. She declared the Indian diaspora in Africa as ‘Ambassadors of India‘.
Apart from the diaspora, close geographical proximity is also a significant factor in India’s outreach to Africa. To counter China’s ‘string of Pearl’ policy, India can garner support from coastal African states for its ‘Necklace of Diamond‘ strategy. Accommodating African countries in the Indo-Pacific vision will give an edge to India.
If we take into account all the above factors, India cannot afford to ignore the African continent while formulating foreign policy. It is as vital as India’s neighbourhood. India is already taking reasonable steps with policies such as ‘SAGAR’ (Security and Growth for All in the Region), which will increase India’s soft power. Leading the fight food against climate injustice will also boost India’s efforts to become ‘Vishwaguru.‘
African countries are facing the vagaries of climate change. Frequent droughts and scarcity of water have worsened the situation. Kenya is facing a food crisis caused due to Covid19, drought and the Russia-Ukraine war. In this backdrop, India can provide humanitarian aid and support for the capacity building of African nations. In today’s turbulent world, where power poles are frequently changing, India can lead the African countries in the new world order.