India’s Strategic Advantage Over China In Africa


By Constantino Xavier

India lacks the material capabilities and the profile to emulate or directly compete with China in Africa. At the same time, it cannot ignore Beijing’s formidable influence and areas where both actors’ interests are increasingly clashing. The solution could reside in a long-term exploration of specific sectors in which India’s relatively untapped added value can be transformed into a strategic advantage over China.

Emulationists vs. Singularists

Invite anyone to talk about Africa in New Delhi and you will almost certainly end up discussing China and listening to a lamenting chorus on India’s incapacity to hold on to the “dragon’s safari”. These disillusioned voices represent the hawkish emulationists – those who believe that India should follow and match Chinese moves in Africa step by step, without any delay or hesitation. For these fans of realpolitik principles, it is all about competition: Africa is just another strategic context in which India will have to blindly follow and match China’s manoeuvres, if it wants to keep its great power ambition intact.1

On the other hand, you have the singularists (including an increasing number of disillusioned emulationists) who, at the other extreme, refuse any possible comparison with China and underline India’s “absolute uniqueness”. In this perspective, an Africa policy is actually unnecessary. These liberal Indian optimists take particular pleasure from African accusations depicting the Chinese as “mercantilist mandarins”. Overtly confident, singularists therefore refuse the emulationists’ competitive logic and like to believe that Africans will eventually recognize the costs of the Chinese model and opt for India as their privileged partner.

Both approaches have failed to serve Indian interests in Africa and have often led to sub-optimal policy-making. On the one hand, emulationist strategies have paid a high price because they ignore the fact that India simply lacks the financial and political capabilities to compete with the Chinese. For example, India’s public oil, gas, mining and infrastructure companies have a long record of bids and chances lost to the Chinese, starting with the 2006 Angola debacle2 and, more recently, in a large Ethiopian rail project.3 On the political front, the 2008 India-Africa summit in Delhi attracted merely 14 African heads of state and senior government leaders, as compared to 48 who had been in Beijing two years earlier.

Nor have singularist strategies proven effective. While encouraging a profound self-confidence in the merits of a supposed “Indian model” (which no one really cares to define) this option has often bred strategic inertia. The result is a general disinterest in looking at India’s presence in Africa in comparative terms and a consequent undervaluation of the continent’s importance to India’s external interests.

How then to overcome this extremist stalemate and optimize India’s presence in Africa? China’s clout in Africa gives it an uncontestable advantage over India: trade volume and preferential tariff lines; quality, speed and effectiveness of aid and credit lines; regularity of bilateral dialogues or strategic partnerships; intensity of defence relations; scope of diplomatic influence… Beijing is ahead of Delhi in most, if not all these indicators. Thus, instead of emulating China or, on the other hand, refusing any comparison with its Northern neighbour, India should identify attributes that distinguish it positively from China and that could therefore be explored as a strategic advantage in the long run.

Business model: “teaching how to fish”

Unlike the state-centric Chinese model largely focused on resource extraction and necessary infrastructure, India’s economic presence in Africa is marked by the predominance of its private sector, including a significant number of small and medium enterprises.4 Beyond resources and infrastructure, India has carved out niches such as information and telecommunication technologies, education and health services.

The Indian sponsored Pan-African e-Network (in partnership with the African Union) links 53 countries through tele-medicine, -education and -governance, and plays a crucial role in fostering skills and human resources that are critical for Africa to develop in a sustainable way. These projects require considerable investments but, in the long term, they will pay off as African countries start to recognize India’s added value in contributing not only to the quantity, but also to the quality of their economic growth.

Moving beyond the narrow Chinese economic focus on resources will also protect African countries from the “Dutch disease” – the dependence on the export of natural resources and a high exchange rate that stifles productivity and international competitiveness of the domestic industrial and services sectors. While China’s economic relations with Africa are actually fuelling this perverse effect, India’s business model offers healing instruments by stimulating local productivity, especially in the private sector. New Delhi should not shy away from underlining and publicizing this in bilateral and multilateral settings: instead of just “giving fish” and perpetuating Africa’s dependence on external powers, it is teaching the continent how to fish itself.

African countries are already inclined to recognize Delhi’s added value in fostering sustainable economic growth: India remains the sole Asian member country of the African Union’s Capacity Building Foundation. And India’s Technical and Economic Cooperation programme (ITEC) has seen such success among the thousands of African students and diplomats who have chosen India for training since the 1960s, that it is now undergoing rapid expansion.5

Location: proximity and overlapping security interests

There are no direct flights linking Johannesburg with Shanghai or Beijing, but Mumbai is less than nine hours away from this major South African air hub. And the only direct flight connecting Ethiopia to Beijing stops over in New Delhi. Connected by the Western Indian Ocean, India and Africa share a geographical proximity and several contact points that need to be explored.

By 2008, India had emerged as the largest contributor to UN mandated operations in Africa, with a cumulative effort totalling more than 30,000 personnel involved in peacekeeping, humanitarian, and electoral missions.6 But this commitment does not, per se, offer a direct advantage over the Chinese, who are also building up their military presence across the continent.7

Instead, it is on the East African coast that India faces a specific advantage as a potential security provider. The piracy threat along the Somali and East African coast, often stretching wide across the ocean, offers the Indian Navy a superb opportunity to develop its blue water ambitions. By keeping these crucial sea lanes of communication and strategic chokepoints (including the Gulf of Aden and the Mozambique channel) secure, and by developing the naval capabilities of the East African states through increased joint exercises, creation of new listening posts, and the supply of vessels, India will increase its delivery capacity and assume a strategic position, at least in the East African security context.

India’s recent initiative to host the first annual Indian Ocean Naval Symposium in Delhi (from which China was excluded), as well as its commitment to revive the moribund Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation8 are important steps in exploring proximity to and overlapping security interests with Africa as an advantage over China. Occasional tactical triangulations with other security partners, such as the IBSA naval forces, the new AFRICOM, or the EU and NATO naval forces in the Gulf of Aden, could further leverage this advantage.

Democracy: the regime advantage

At the height of the “China in Africa” hype, African governments were often said to be keen to replicate China’s centralized and illiberal political architecture.9 Delhi’s emulationists often despise India’s democracy as a central obstacle to their country’s external performance and often envy the Chinese authoritarian capacity in “getting things done” in Africa. However, little suggests that African governments have in practice attempted to replicate the political features that sustain the great Chinese transformation since 1978.

Instead, unprecedented levels of sustained economic growth have actually reinvigorated Africa’s democratic competitiveness and pluralist institutions.10 Without falling into the temptation to export or impose its political institutions on Africa, India could perhaps shed its traditional inhibitions and start practicing its moralistic foreign policy discourse on democracy and human rights. As a founding member of the Community of Democracies, Delhi faces the opportunity to explore this “regime advantage” over China in Africa, at least in subtle and indirect ways.

For example, nine African delegations attended the International Conference on Federalism hosted by New Delhi in 2007, including Nigeria’s Vice-President who expressed his country’s interest in learning from India’s successful experience with federal democracy. Several African countries have expressed interest in working with the Election Commission of India to study and replicate India’s unique electronic voting system. India’s vibrant base of local government institutions and its independent judicial system based on the rule of law are two other areas in which India can share its unique expertise through technical cooperation, thus responding to specific African interests and, at the same time, outflank China.

Diplomacy: Southern power

China and India are both situated in the Northern Hemisphere, but paradoxically are also competing ferociously to become leaders of the “Global South”, be it during the trade negotiations at Doha or, more recently, at the climate change summit in Copenhagen. But as a traditional “bridging” or “positive power”,11 India has a distinct advantage: in stark contrast to the radical ideological and interventionist Chinese moves during the 1950s and 1960s, Delhi played a much more constructive diplomatic role in supporting the African independence movements in the United Nations.

India’s leading role as a “Colombo Power” in creating the Non-Alignment movement at Bandung and its central role within the Afro-Asian UN block of the 1960s has thus earned it a persisting respectability as a “Southern power”. For example, unlike China, it is a founding member of the G-77 of developing nations and held its presidency twice.

India is also a member of the influential Commonwealth organization and at the heart of the impressive Southern trilateral (and tri-continental) India-Brazil-South Africa (IBSA) axis that gives it a strategic advantage to engage with the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) and Sub-saharan Africa. This profile offers Delhi a distinct advantage that, unfortunately, remains largely unexplored because many of the old time Africanist diplomats who served in the Ministry of External Affairs have retired over the last decade.

Diaspora: the privileged access channel

A final potential advantage resides in the cultural proximity between Africa and India. The large Indian diaspora plays a vital factor in this regard: a 2001 estimate identified close to one hundred thousand Indian citizens residing in Africa, with more than half in Eastern and Southern Africa. On top of this more recent immigrant community, there are more than one million people of Indian origin who have settled in Africa for many generations (close to one million in South Africa; 25,000 in Madagascar; 15,000 in Zimbabwe; and 8,000 in Nigeria).12

Unlike the more recent and radically segregated Chinese “labour diaspora” that has often led to frictions and protests in Africa, these communities of Indian origin are fully integrated and often interested in offering their business expertise as consultants to Indian investment projects. Their local contacts also often present Delhi with privileged channels to access key political figures and represent Indian interests in moments of crisis. In Liberia, for example, the local Honorary Indian Consul, a local businessmen of Indian origin, stayed on in Monrovia throughout the various civil wars when most other diplomatic missions had to close down.13

At the same time, beyond geographic proximity, India also offers a much more familiar and open society: racism against Africans in India is not uncommon, but well below the levels experienced in China. For the increasing number of African investors and students who seek opportunities abroad, English-speaking India therefore offers a much more attractive destination: an increasing number of African businessmen permanently reside in Delhi and Mumbai, and more than 10,000 African students enrol annually in Indian universities, many of them sponsored by the Indian government.14

Exploring the advantage

Shashi Tharoor, the former Indian Minister of State for External Relations, who focused on relations with Africa, underlined that “we have an opportunity to enjoy a privileged position in many African countries that we would be foolish not to develop.”15 This “opportunity” resides precisely in the five dimensions discussed above, where India offers Africa an added value that, strategically explored, could lend it a long-term advantage over China and other competitors.

Focusing on these specific sectors, beyond the options much in vogue with offensive emulationists or passive singularists, will also help India to clarify its priorities, optimize its policy-making process and infuse its Africa policy with greater strategic depth.

Originally published by Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses ( at

1. See “New Delhi’s great power ambition,” in
2. “ONG loses Angolan bid to China,” in Hindustan Times:…
3. “India’s complacency leads to Chinese takeover of huge Ethiopian rail project,”
4. For a detailed survey of these different economic cooperation models, see Harry Broadman’s Africa’s Silk Road: China and India’s New Economic Frontier, accessible at
5. See “India’s Technical and Economic Cooperation Programme,”
6. Ruchita Beri (2008), “India’s Role in Keeping Peace in Africa,” Strategic Analysis, vol. 32. no. 2, pp. 197-221.
7. Susan Puska, “Military backs China’s Africa adventure,”
8. Shashi Tharoor, “Indian Ocean Unity,”
9. Martyn Davies (2008), “China’s Developmental Model Comes to Africa,” Review of African Political Economy, vol. 35, no. 115, pp. 134-137,
10. See Augustin K. Fosu, “Democracy and growth in Africa: Implications of increasing electoral competitiveness,”
11. The concept has been developed by Sunil Khilnani in “Bridging identities: India as a positive power?,”
12. Estimates by the High Level Committee on the Indian Diaspora, whose report is accessible at
13. See Nitin Pai’s interview with Shashi Tharoor, “The capacity to engage,” Pragati,
14. “African students favour India over Europe and US,”…
15. Shashi Tharoor, “The capacity to engage,” Pragati,

Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA)

The Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA), is a non-partisan, autonomous body dedicated to objective research and policy relevant studies on all aspects of defence and security. Its mission is to promote national and international security through the generation and dissemination of knowledge on defence and security-related issues. The Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA) was formerly named The Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA).

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