Reimagining India-Africa relations in a world in flux

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Reimagining India-Africa relations in a world in flux

Abhijnan Rej

08 Feb 2019

4min min read
  • International relations

Africa has always been an important aspect of India's foreign policy. Now, shifting geopolitics and a resurgence in great-power rivalry present challenges and opportunities that extend beyond trade, investment and development, writes Abhijnan Rej in his inaugural column for the Africa Portal. 


outh African President Cyril Ramaphosa’s visit to India last month took place at a time of three inter-related tectonic shifts. First, continental geographies are being reinvented, erasing artificial distinctions between Europe and Asia, and between the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Second, great-power politics have returned to the world stage as US-China and US-Russia rivalries intensify. Third, technology has become intertwined with geopolitics as nations seek to preserve their edge in the face of new actors. The Joint Statement of both countries on the occasion covered a broad range of issues and approximately reflected the ongoing churn in the international system. That said, continental Africa and India still have to walk some distance together before they develop a common understanding of – and craft shared responses to – a "world in disarray". African states and India must look beyond old tropes around development, trade and investments and craft a fresh conversation that reflects the promises as well as perils of global disruptions.

The first such disruption is the refashioning of mental continental maps due to, in equal measures, unprecedented economic connectivity as well as great-power competition. The rise of a Eurasian supercontinent – from the Atlantic to the Pacific oceans – shaped by Chinese money, Russian muscle, and European disunity is one of the most transformative developments of the 21st century. The fate of north African states and that of Europe continue to be intertwined. “As Europe disappears [and] Eurasia coheres” (to quote Robert Kaplan), continental Africa would have to come to terms with the economic, political, and security implications of this shift. And this is where India comes in, as the “central node” between the two extremities of the Eurasian landmass. While northern Africa’s links to the supercontinent through the Mediterranean will remain contested, India could serve as a fresh economic as well as ideological bridge, unencumbered by usual irritants, between Africa and Eurasia.

If the emergence of a continental Eurasia as a geopolitical and geoeconomic entity is one great story of our era, the construct of a maritime Indo-Pacific is the other. India’s enthusiastic adoption of this notion could stand to extend Africa-India ties in three different ways. First, unlike the United States, India considers the Indo-Pacific to extend from the western Pacific to the eastern coastline of Africa with the Indian Ocean as its centre. In order to give shape to this preference, India along with Japan (which shares a similar definition of the Indo-Pacific) has expressed interest in an Asia-Africa Growth Corridor that would economically link Africa with East Asia through sea. Second, India signed naval-logistics agreements with the US and France in 2016 and 2018, respectively. Through these agreements, India is expected to have access to naval bases in Djibouti (in the Horn of Africa) which will help consolidate the country’s anti-piracy efforts, as well as balance Chinese naval presence, in the region. Third, India’s renewed focus on the Indian Ocean, as the heart of the Indo-Pacific, has led it to recently establish an ‘information fusion centre’ that will monitor traditional as well as non-traditional maritime security challenges in the region. India has welcomed all members of the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium, which includes several African states, to participate in the facility.

The re-imagination of continental geographies is a direct corollary of growing great-power competition between the US on one hand, and China and Russia on the other. Africa and India stand to be directly affected by these rivalries in two different ways. First, as the United States turns its attention away from fighting terrorists and other non-state actors – witness the Trump administration’s position on Syria and Afghanistan – in order to focus its military power on China and Russia, the burden of these responsibilities will invariably fall on others. 

Parts of Africa continue to witness separatist movements as well as Islamist terrorism; the ongoing reorientation of the American military implies that affected African states will have to step in and up and fill the ensuing void. With its long history of combatting terrorism as well as extensive peacekeeping experience in the continent, India could emerge as a natural partner in this effort. And to be clear, this would not be out of altruism, whether in Africa or elsewhere. As India’s global economic footprint and interests become pronounced, New Delhi may indeed be compelled to do so out of self-interest.

"The ongoing US-China trade war could seriously damage the WTO-centred multilateral trading system. It is quite likely that emerging economies will stand to be most affected by this. South Africa and India must coordinate their positions at the WTO and elsewhere to mitigate the fallout."

Second, great-power competition – which pessimists compare to a new iteration of the Cold War – also stands to erode economic and security regimes. For example, the ongoing US-China trade war could seriously damage the WTO-centred multilateral trading system. It is quite likely that emerging economies will stand to be most affected by this. South Africa and India must coordinate their positions at the WTO and elsewhere to mitigate the fallout. And they must do so through engagement beyond shared platforms such as BRICS and G20 where China’s and/or the United States’s presence may be irritants. When it comes to security regimes, great-power competition may render the UN system splintered and inter alia ineffective. How African states and India collectively shape a response to this remains unclear.

Finally, Africa and India must develop common responses to the emerging intertwining of technology and geopolitics. The ongoing saga around the Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei, fuelled by US-China rivalry, serves as a good example. The company's bid to develop pioneering 5G networks around the world has raised alarms in several western capitals given its link with China’s security establishment. However, India has refused to ban the company from selling 5G equipment in the country. On this, India and African countries are on the same page. Beyond the issue of a single manufacturer – or for that matter, a single country – India and Africa must examine the political and security costs of adoption of all foreign technology especially as it becomes a backbone for their economic transformation. Together, they must also promote transparency as a precondition for security-sensitive technology imports.

(Main image: South African President Cyril Ramaphosa (L) with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi prior to a meeting at Hyderabad House in New Delhi on 25 January 2019. – Money Sharma/AFP/Getty Images)

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of SAIIA or CIGI.