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Opinion

Africa: Caught between India and China?

If it's a good summit then everybody benefits. But the India-Africa summit this week had a blemish: it was not a meeting among equals, writes Ludger Schadomsky.

As it turned out, the timing was perfect for India. This huge Africa summit - the largest gathering of African leaders outside Africa - was postponed because of the Ebola epidemic. It took place in October. Why was this so important for India? Because South Africa is hosting a China-Africa summit at the beginning of December and the Indian hosts would have been most disappointed if their neighbors had once again sneaked ahead of them in the new "scramble for Africa." China's trade with Africa already totals some $70 billion (64 billion euros), which is three times India's trade with the continent.

Despite the opulent festivities in New Dehli which accompanied the 3rd India-Africa Forum Summit - to give it its full title - and the reminders of how much Africa and India have in common, it was evident that the Indian tiger can be just as pragmatic as the Chinese dragon when crafting relations with the African lion. India needs support for its campaign to reform the United Nations (it would like a permanent seat on the UN Security Council); it needs backing at the climate summit in Paris and allies in combating global terror and fighting piracy at sea. India would like to be able to count on Africa as a strategic partner at the upcoming World Trade Organization (WTO) negotiations (which quite by coincidence are taking place in Nairobi in December). Some observers - not without a touch of malice - have likened India's concessionary credit and grants for Africa to the malpractices at FIFA.

Nonetheless Africa has much to gain if it were agree on common positions over trade, security cooperation, climate protection and South-South cooperation with India.

Before the summit Indian commentators had expressed surprise at the lack of African enthusiasm for the meeting and, incidentally, at the lack of preparation for it as well. More seasoned observers were not surprised. South Africa exports coal to India in vast quantities. But that African nation, which has an ethnic Indian population of 1.3 million, has yet to properly exploit its potential for trade and knowledge transfer. The same must also be said of the BRICS group of nations (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. Brazil delegates complain that they are still waiting for telephone numbers or even the names of contacts in South Africa with whom they can begin to pursue the goal of South-South cooperation.

Commodities exporter

Africa continues to export raw materials. Its diamonds, minerals and crude oil are processed elsewhere and then - in part - re-imported as mostly poor quality goods. This is not the fault of the India or China, but of Nigeria and South Africa. South Africa produces 90 percent of the world's platinum output but only a tiny percentage of the catalytic convertors which are dependant on the metal for their manufacture. This is one example among many.

Modi and Zuma

South African President Jacob Zuma with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi

Indian commentators have been encouraging Africa to adopt a more active role in global security policy. How could it come about that the United States and India are able to agree on a training mission for Indian blue helmets in Africa without the involvement of the African Union? Of equal interest is why African does not participate more fully in cooperation with India over public health.

Africa was a guest at this summit, it did not have the higher status of a partner. With a barely disguised dig at the Chinese, India's prime minister said his country wanted to invest in Africa so the snow on Kilimanjaro wouldn't melt. But after four days of meetings involving 1000 delegates, the Africans tended to believe that the Indians may be a little less slippery than the Chinese, or at least they gave the appearance of being so. After all, the Indians did extend an invitation to Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, an African leader who is wanted by the ICC on war crimes charges. It should also be mentioned that the Indian oil concern ONGC owns oil fields in Sudan and evidently sees Africa as a potential growth area.

Africa and India were both colonized by the Europeans. But India does not set much store by this historic parallel as the Africans discovered in 2014 when a summit scheduled for December of that year was postponed because of Indian anxiety over Ebola. The Africans apparently agreed to the postponement but were offended nonetheless. They see Modi's charm offensive as just another lap in the race between the tiger and dragon. At the moment the lion is just a spectator.

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