While in Africa, Narendra Modi will do well to avoid thinking about China - Firstpost

While in Africa, Narendra Modi will do well to avoid thinking about China

Today, we pledge to walk together, with our steps in rhythm and our voices in harmony. This is not a new journey, nor a new beginning. But, this is a new promise of a great future for an ancient relationship.

The words of Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the India-Africa Forum Summit in Delhi in October last year seemed to ring a bit hollow when he uttered them. Particularly, since at the time he had yet to undertake any constructive outreach to Africa with the exception of his meetings on the sidelines of multilateral summits. Furthermore, there was no hint of any Africa visit on the cards at the time either.

Fast-forward to 7 July, 2016, when he has the opportunity to make good on that 'promise of a great future'.

Not only is Modi on his first foray to the continent, but his visit includes four countries — Mozambique, Tanzania, Kenya and South Africa — all of which are crucial to India’s Africa strategy. And part of that strategy entails ensuring that India doesn't fall too far behind China — it would be incredibly naïve to think that India is in a position to compete with the Chinese footprint at the moment — in Africa.

But first, let's take a quick glance at the major themes of the Delhi Declaration signed by the leaders of 41 African countries and Modi at the culmination of the third India-Africa Forum Summit:


And now, let's take a quick look at the Declaration of the Johannesburg Summit of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation signed in December last year:


Of course, there will be cultural exchanges and scholarships, but it's quite clear that 'development' is the currency in which both India and China are dealing with Africa.

What's in play so far?

Here's how the numbers stack up against each other:

Rather than looking at the disparity in numbers, it's probably worth looking at what sort of development this money spurs.

China's focus has been on massive infrastructure development, while India has tended to prioritise the services sector. When Chinese companies undertake projects in Africa, they bring in their own workers. But India is the world's largest creator of jobs, training and employing locals, as this World Bank report points out.

Further, observers have pointed at China's aggressive expansion in Africa, which has let to suspicion among locals, while India still enjoys historic goodwill in Africa — something that was underscored by the India-Africa Forum Summit last year.

What should India's gameplan be?

For the time being, Modi should not attempt to compete with China in its areas of strength. India has neither the finances nor the capacity to do so and it also should not aspire to be seen as a 'coloniser' — a brush with which China has found itself tarred over the course of its African experience.

The pursuit of India's national interest and carrying Africa along are not mutually exclusive concepts. Ergo, India and its companies must continue to be Africa's partner in development — human development. The construction of massive dams, ports and business centres can wait.

This will allow India to maintain a significant presence in Africa, without being drawn into the geo-economic equivalent of entering a gunfight with a pocket knife.

As he signs the inevitable slew of MoUs and agreements, PM Narendra Modi would do well to forget about what China is doing and recall his own words from October last year:

"India is honoured to be a development partner for Africa. It is a partnership beyond strategic concerns and economic benefits. It is formed from the emotional bonds we share and the solidarity we feel for each other."

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