Conservative Columnist: Welcoming an Asian Elephant in Africa

Conservative Columnist: Welcoming an Asian Elephant in Africa

All eyes are on China and its growing involvement in Africa, but India’s expanding relations with African countries have gone largely unnoticed. China’s intentions create anxiety; India’s do not.


All eyes are on China and its growing involvement in Africa, but India's expanding relations with African countries have gone largely unnoticed. China's intentions create anxiety; India's do not. In the current issue of The National Interest, Antoine Halff's essay, "The Panda Menace", discusses the implications for Americans as well as for Africans of China's massive entry into Africa, a foreign policy which, in the view of an increasingly vociferous group of policymakers and analysts on both sides of the Atlantic, is "blindly driven by short-term commercial interests and divorced from any other consideration, be it human rights, good governance, democracy or environmental sustainability." This charge is not without serious implications given that last year, the Bush Administration's National Security Strategy document declared that "Africa holds growing geo-strategic importance and is a high priority of this administration"-as well it should for a region which not only currently supplies the U.S. with more hydrocarbons than the Middle East, but also presents significant political, security and humanitarian challenges.

India's advances in Africa are driven by many of the same motivations as China's, including quests for resources, business opportunities, diplomatic openings and strategic alliances. What is different, however, is that, given the dynamics of the emerging U.S.-Indian strategic partnership, New Delhi's increased African engagement, unlike Beijing's, ought to be welcomed in Washington.

First, India's modus operandi on the continent not only benefits Indians, it also benefits Africans. As the Council on Foreign Relation's Karen Monaghan has observed, India can teach Africa a few things about the "importance of entrepreneurship" for "driving and generating jobs, and generating income, and generating growth", noting that "Indian companies are much more integrated into African society and the African economy", hiring locally and emphasizing training on maintainience and repair of plants they build. Unlike China, which is often viewed as a predator interested only in extracting commodities, India has encouraged technology transfers to its African partners.


Furthermore, the lessons which India learned while freeing itself from the oppressive "Hindu rate of growth"-the 3.5 percent annual rate of economic growth which for decades just barely kept pace with the population increase-are precisely those African states need to study for their own development. Economic liberalization is a tougher but better path than the "no strings attached" blandishments which are offered to them by China's mercantilistism. Moreover, for African states, many of which are plagued by instability, autocracy, and ethnic and religious strife, India offers the example of a successfully developing country where speakers of 22 different official languages (in addition to English), as well as an estimated 1,652 mother tongues have co-existed largely peacefully for six decades, acquiring ever greater national consciousness while building the world's largest democracy. As Prime Minister Singh noted in a speech two years ago:

If there is an "idea of India" by which India should be defined, it is the idea of an inclusive, open, multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-lingual society. I believe that this is the dominant trend of political evolution of all societies in the 21st century. Therefore, we have an obligation to history and mankind to show that pluralism works. India must show that democracy can deliver development and empower the marginalized. Liberal democracy is the natural order of political organization in today's world. All alternate systems, authoritarian and majoritarian in varying degrees, are an aberration.

Second, the burgeoning Indian-African relationship is good for the United States overall, especially given the strategic ties which the two countries have forged in recent years, a bilateral relationship that may go down as one of the longest lasting foreign-policy accomplishments of the Bush presidency. The United States can benefit in many of its security preoccupations in Africa from the tacit-and occasionally explicit-support of India, which has enormous political capital from its co-founding and longtime leadership of the Non-Aligned Movement. Making their position even stronger is India's longtime support of anti-colonial and anti-apartheid movements on the continent.

Of course, the United States can hardly expect a proud and democratic nation like India to always follow its cue. After all, as Hans Morgenthau taught in Politics Among Nations, "Diplomacy must look at the political scene from the point of view of other nations", noting that "minds not beclouded by the crusading zeal of a political religion and capable of viewing the national interests of both sides with objectivity, the delimitation of these vital interests should not prove too difficult."

Unlike China, whose dealings on the continent potentially undermine not just Western companies and aid agencies, but the entire African reform agenda, India is not likely to present a direct challenge to core U.S. interests in what is now the geo-strategically vital region of Sub-Saharan Africa. In fact, as it plays commercial catch-up (India's exports amount to just 10 percent of China's), its economic interests are more likely than not to clash with those of the Middle Kingdom-and both countries know it. In 2004, for example, Beijing used its diplomatic and financial leverage with the government of Angola to get the latter's state-owned oil company, Sonangol, to prevent a move by India's public sector Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) to purchase the half-ownership of a major production block from the Anglo-Dutch energy giant Shell and forced its sale instead to the China Petroleum and Chemical Corporation (Sinopec).

In a recent TNI essay, Ambassador Blackwill described the growing alignment between India and the United States as "an enduring part of the international landscape of the 21st century," arguing that:

The vital interests of both Washington and New Delhi are now so congruent that the two countries can and will find many ways in which to cooperate in the decades ahead. Over time, the U.S.-India relationship will come more and more to resemble the intimate U.S. interaction with Japan and our European treaty allies.

In short, the U.S.-Indian relationship should not be judged on its short-term results, but over the long term as national interests gradually converge, including in remote theaters like Africa.


J. Peter Pham is the director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs at James Madison University.