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30 May, 2011

Scramble for Africa

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

As Prime Minister Manmohan Singh flew into Addis Ababa last week for a meeting with leaders of 15 nations, the Western media proclaimed that India and China were engaged in a scramble for Africa. A section of the Indian media echoed the sentiment. “India now rivals China for top honours in the new Great Game in Africa,” wrote one newspaper.

It is not surprising that those fed on history texts that chronicle the European competition for acquiring colonies should view the Indian and Chinese efforts to expand their contacts with Africa, which are in keeping with their status as fast growing economics, in terms of 18th and 19th century imperial endeavours.

If there is a conflict in Africa today it is not between the two emergent Asian powers but between them and the Western nations which brought the continent under their heel in the colonial era and continue to benefit from the gains of that period.

The United States and seven European countries are among the top 10 trading partners of sub-Saharan Africa. The Asian countries in the list are China and Japan. India does not figure in it at all.

Japan built up its African market as its economy boomed after World War II but chose to remain a junior partner of the West. China, which sets its eye on the African market about two decades ago, is now the largest exporter to the region.

In 2008, when India began efforts to enlarge its economic ties with the region, China was already at the top as an exporter, accounting for 9.8% of all sub-Saharan imports, as against Germany’s 5.6% and United States’ 5.3%. The US remained the biggest importer, receiving as much as 28.4% of all exports from the resource-rich region. China was in the second place, accounting for 13.4% of the exports, having edged past Japan and the European competitors.

At present the US is involved in a desperate attempt to beat back China’s challenge. Last year, as a matter of strategy, the US government decided to stay out of low-end competition with China, which has flooded Africa’s streets and supermarkets with cheap goods, and focus on the sensitive and highly profitable high-tech segment, which includes aircraft, medicine and medical equipment.

The Addis Ababa event which Manmohan Singh attended was the second Africa-India Forum Summit (AIFS). That forum was created eight years after the Forum on US-Sub Saharan Africa Trade and Economic Cooperation (commonly referred to as AGOA Forum, after the African Growth and Opportunity Act of 2000) and the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) came into being.

Following the first AIFS summit, India had set up a pan-African e-network linking 43 countries of the continent. Although a good part of the credit line of $5.6 billion offered at that time for development and capacity-building projects is yet to be utilised, India committed more funds to take up new projects in such areas as information technology, textiles, food processing and weather forecasting.

The keen interest evinced in Africa by both developed and developing countries reflects their faith in the continent’s future. The region has more than 50 countries with a total population of about 1.5 billion. As many as 33 countries classified by the United Nations as “least developed” are located there, but the region’s growth rate compares favourably with that of the world as a whole.

As countries which suffered the ravages of imperialism, China and India have certain advantages over the West in their dealings with Africa. China’s $126 billion trade with Africa puts it way ahead of India, which is seeking to raise its trade from $46 billion to $70 billion in the near future.

The differing circumstances of China and India offer scope for assuming roles that are complementary rather than competitive. This does not mean the scramble the pundits are talking about can be ruled out forever. There are policy makers in both countries whose mindsets have been conditioned by western textbooks.

Past association in the Non-Aligned Movement and South-South exchanges will stand India in good stead as it re-engages with emergent Africa. However, it has to keep in mind a lesson from the earlier period. Many young Africans who studied in Indian universities under a scheme instituted by Jawaharlal Nehru were in high positions when their countries gained Independence. Memories of the subtle racial discrimination they had experienced as students often dulled their enthusiasm for India.--Gulf Today, Sharjah, May 30, 2011.

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