As China ups game in East Africa, India tries to guard 'home advantage'

For New Delhi, Beijing's One Belt, One Road initiative and first African military base represent an increasing challenge to centuries-old ties across the Indian Ocean.

Adnan Abidi/ Reuters/ File
India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi leaves after delivering his closing remarks at the end of the India-Africa Forum Summit in New Delhi, India, on October 29, 2015.

On Monday, when China and India stepped back from the brink after weeks of mounting tensions along a disputed Himalayan border, it was a stark reminder of a decades-old rivalry. Agreeing to “expeditious disengagement,” the two countries appeared to damp the flames they'd reignited in June, when Chinese forces attempted to extend a road in the contested Doklam Plateau.

Nevertheless, their tensions continue to play out far from their borders. Some 4,000 miles away, Indian soldiers of another sort are fighting back against a different Chinese road: the One Belt, One Road infrastructure initiative, Beijing’s $900 billion Silk Road for the 21st Century. OBOR made its Kenyan debut in June with the inauguration of a rail line from Nairobi to the coast, replacing the tracks laid by Indian servants under colonialism a century earlier. And on August 1, China formally opened a military base in Djibouti – its first in Africa – further intensifying an interest in East Africa that has made the region a playing field for Sino-Indian rivalries.

The soldiers on India's front lines in Kenya wear trim suits. Their battlefields are shopping malls and conference halls. In July, dozens came to Nairobi to present their products – industrial gears, embroidered textiles, sanitary pads, and motorcycle helmets – at the third annual “Made in Gujarat” expo, introducing Indian firms to African markets. Meanwhile, Chinese billionaire Jack Ma addressed a hall of Kenyan university students, part of a regional tour alongside 38 other Chinese tycoons.

“The regional geopolitics in Asia get refracted outwards globally into these expressions of foreign policy,” says Padraig Carmody, the head of the geography department at Trinity College Dublin.

India would appear to have the home advantage, given its proximity and long-standing trade with East Africa. “The Indian Ocean does not separate us,” Suchitra Durai, India’s high commissioner to Kenya, tells the crowd at the expo. “It connects us.”

Yet Indian merchants here face increasing competition, as China’s growing global ambitions bring decades-old tensions to a new frontier. Indian businesses are racing to keep up, as its historic ties to the region come face-to-face with strategic, state-backed campaigns for influence from Beijing.

Indian influence challenged

The Indian diaspora in Africa numbers in the low millions: some were brought by the British; others settled here centuries earlier as maritime merchants. The men here in Nairobi are but the latest iteration of that tradition, having traded dhow boats for direct flights. 

These Indian nationals began arriving in the 1990s when India liberalized its economy and opened its borders for business. African economies were ripe for investment, thanks to the end of the cold war – and corresponding financial support for the developing world.

Now, both the old-guard Indian community and new immigrants find themselves increasingly squeezed by Beijing’s long reach. “The impact has been less state versus state, but taking stabs at an ethnic niche Indians enjoyed in East Africa,” says Jatin Dua, an assistant professor at the University of Michigan who studies the region, says of growing Chinese influence.

The plucky Indians at the expo know they can't match China's deep pockets and immense state machinery. So they fight back where they can. “If you’re looking for quality, you go for Indian products,” Rudvik Sankhala, a carpentry tool salesman at the expo, says proudly. And in the past few years, men like Mr. Sankhala have also found the Indian government behind them, as it tries to reverse its waning influence, eying new political and economic opportunities.

“In many ways, India is playing catch up on a continent that it actually has historically had much longer and deeper roots on,” Dr. Dua says.

'Balancing' Chinese policy

Shri Chandramouli, the commercial attaché of the Indian High Commission, visits each stall at the event, handing out his business card, sharing contacts for established local magnates and potential clients, and promising appointments in his office. “We are a young country, and we are not competing with China,” he insists.

Many analysts see a different story. In May, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi snubbed a meeting of OBOR nations. Just weeks later he announced his own initiative, the Asia-Africa Growth Corridor, in conjunction with Japan.

Dr. Carmody, author of “New Scramble for Africa,” says that India has long taken this approach of “balancing” Chinese foreign policy.

“The Indians have been mirroring or mimicking what the Chinese have been doing since 2000,” when Beijing established a regular Chinese-African high-level summit, he says. India held its inaugural African summit in 2008 and announced $10 billion in credit for African development at the last meeting in 2015.

Meeting needs at home

The continent also offers the two countries a cheap supply to meet their citizens’ growing demands. Both meet nearly one-fifth of their oil demand with African imports. They’ve bought up oil concessions in hostile environments like South Sudan, and offered billions of dollars in infrastructure packages to petrostates across the continent.

China and India are also looking to Africa to provide affordable food for their growing domestic populations. In one of the few examples of India outspending China, India extended $640 million dollars to develop Ethiopian agriculture; China extended $55 million for an irrigation project. Similar deals have been made by both nations in Kenya, Mali, and elsewhere – projects some criticize as thinly veiled land grabs. 

A defining feature of these development projects, though, is a policy of non-interference, as opposed to Western aid contingent on economic and political reforms. University of Cambridge lecturer Emma Mawdsley, author of “From Recipients to Donors: The Emerging Powers and the Changing Development Landscape,” says India and China are actually benefitting from the economic liberalization pushed by Western agencies, however. “They’re sort of walking behind the big stick the IMF is carrying,” she says.

However, analysts warn that the Asian superpowers’ competition in Africa should not be overblown. Only 3 percent of Africa’s foreign direct investment comes from China, but given the flashy projects – road systems, power generation plants, multi-million dollar football stadiums – their engagement is magnified.

Soft power ties

But there are also key differences in the scope and method of their tactics. Massive state-funded infrastructure projects symbolize China’s strategic presence, while Indian engagement is constrained by its budget. India’s GDP is about one-fifth the size of China’s, and soft power plays – often done hand-in-hand with Indian nationals in the diaspora, like the “Made in Gujarat” expo – are becoming characteristic of India’s engagement.

Indian officials also emphasize ancient trade links and a shared history of colonial suffering in strengthening modern ties. Much of that history, however, has been sanitized: such as the fact that Africans were brought to India in the 1800s to serve as slaves and soldiers. Or that Idi Amin expelled Indians in Uganda in 1972. Mahatma Gandhi's attitudes toward black South Africans have likewise been largely forgotten.

Nevertheless, Gandhi hoped for cooperation. “The commerce between India and Africa will be of ideas and services, not of manufactured goods against raw materials,” he said. Today, however, the majority of exports from Africa to India are raw resources. And the lines-of-credit that form the cornerstone of Indian diplomacy require that 75 percent of the money must be spent on Indian goods and services.

Indian officials maintain that India is a true partner of Africa, and is only trying to share its development experience with neighbors across the sea.

“We have a saying in India,” Mr. Chandramouli says. “Vasudhaiva kutumbakam.” The world is our family.

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