Prime minister Narendra Modi’s African safari is ostensibly designed to offset the deep inroads made by China into the continent. It is probably a bit too little and a lot too late to play catch up. The visit to Mozambique, South Africa, Tanzania and Kenya in a four-day flurry will be more ceremonial and pleasantly crammed with standard clichés of goodwill and heightened co-operation.
It will be uphill all the way even getting to base camp being doubtful.
Any enhanced deals are not likely to dent the $200 billion investment Beijing has in Africa and the large number of boots on the ground. There are over a million Chinese in South Africa and although those of Indian origin may be more they are now fourth generation Africans and not on deputation.
Since the nineties China has been establishing a presence militarily, politically and commercially much to the consternation of Washington and the EU. In fact, the Chinese economic invasion is seen as a war being won with no gun being fired while the rest of the world sits on its hands.
If there is something substantial behind the scenes it hasn’t been shared yet but it won’t change the equations. The Indian PM will receive a warm welcome but winning contracts won’t be easy.
China has built railways linking Zambia and Tanzania, invested in education, taken over 200,000 Africans to the mainland for training (our track record there is currently steeped in suspicion and racism) used the ‘barefoot doctor’ concept in the Congo and treated over 200 million patients.
In December 2015, President Xi Jingpin pledged $60 billion to the now not-so-dark continent but one poised to be the next ‘best thing’ as far as potential markets go. Nigeria is one of the biggest beneficiaries.
While there are reports circulating about China’s nautical and military presence at a much higher level than officially acknowledged Beijing has been active in Somalia and Mali’s internal affairs.
China’s supply of military hardware, including jet fighters to Zimbabwe, has been a matter of great contention in the west which is also losing the battle for influence in Africa. Sudan was also a recipient of arms and wherever there are pockets of resistance to the governments that favour business with China it would be naive to imagine the Chinese warm the benches on the sidelines.
If India should be seriously concerned it is over the building of China’s first overseas naval base in Djibouti where the Red Sea confluences with the Indian Ocean. That is a development New Delhi cannot take lightly.
For all you know Modi might be the forward scout for the western world and one cannot discount the possibility of Washington and the EU connecting with India and South Africa to attempt to create an alternative. Miles to go, yes, but better late than never.
A wake up call with Modi as the alarm clock.
Modi does have the Indian diaspora on his side and he could use it effectively to begin spinning the Indian web in commerce and finance, education and agriculture as well as create a willing fifth column that is affluent and educated .
That said, he probably needs a rah rah rah fix here comes the hero which hasn’t happened for a long time and the huge Durban population of Indian origin will make for a perfect setting as Modi gives one of his ‘luv y’all’ speeches and extols the achievements of the past 24 months to a madly cheering audience.
That done, when the lights go off and the garlands are dead, what will he bring home in definite terms?
With Mozambique’s President Filipe Nyusi it will be more protocol and an expression of concern about China’s naval presence in the south Asian waters. Cannot see Nyusi offering much to India beyond happy-hour promises and warm handshakes because in the past one year he was literally delivered to Beijing when a crippling national debt forced him to ask for aid from the west. It was a plea that largely went unheard. So he called China and the rest is history. The nearly $2 billion is being ‘handled’. It speaks for itself that Mozambique has not recognised Taiwan.
In Tanzania, Prime Minister Modi will have bilateral discussions with President John Magufuli and so too in Kenya with President Uhuru Kenyatta. Again, these are not likely to yield anything spectacular and will more likely turn into Indian origin spectacles.
Kenya’s economy is in a Chinese vice and imports have surged 45% according to reports this week. Kenya is beholden. Tanzania is one of the three nations selected for the special project initiated in April 2015 by the Chinese called industrial capacity cooperation with several projects in the pipeline.
In this race to make deals with Africa India has allowed herself to lag so far behind that whirlwind tours will be simply ceremonial.
President Juma and Prime Minister Modi could have some common grounds because of the South African proximity to the western powers and its fears of the growing Chinese influence in the neighbourhood.
Perhaps they do have a common agenda and the other stopovers are relative window dressing for a private summit that might be privately multi-lateral on Jo-burg.
With a one point agenda; what do we do about China.