India and China are engaged in a contest for influence across Africa, competing over vital energy resources and minerals. As both countries grow, this competition could transform into a rivalry. Although India cannot compete with China on the basis of financial might, cultivating a New Delhi consensus that supports equal, non-exploitative relationships and champions democratic values could be the antithesis of China's moves in Africa.

There is a new ‘scramble’ for Africa underway. Over the past decade Indo-Sino relations have witnessed a sharp downturn and their rivalry is not limited just to the high Himalayas or South Asia. In the evolving landscape of global competition, India and China find themselves engaged in a ‘scramble’ for influence across Africa, a continent that for long was relegated to the shadows of India’s foreign relations. China has swooped in, impressively and with pace. Chinese rapidly increasing influence in Africa has meant that for India, Africa is no more a political backwater. With China's rapid ascendancy in the region, India's traditional sphere of influence is being challenged. Both nations vie for access to Africa's energy and critical mineral resources, with China holding a dominant position.

From the Indian perspective, eastern Africa may be seen as falling within the Indian sphere of influence. The presence of Indian diaspora in eastern and southern Africa, the geographical proximity of Africa, particularly eastern Africa, and the traditional acceptance of Indian naval dominance in the region had created a notion of an Indian sphere of influence in the Indo-pacific. This notion has been increasingly challenged. Chinese financial might, industrial base, and growing naval power has offset India’s advantage in the region. India can, however, still serve as a viable democratic model of development that can address the needs of a developing multi-ethnic state.  

China-Africa Relations: Attempts at leading the ‘Global South’

Africa received attention from China thanks to its competition with Taiwan for international recognition. This competition sought to buttress China’s nascent attempts in the 1950s to represent the ‘global south’ —an idea which India embraced  at the  G20 2023 Presidency. Back then, China’s material support for independence movements and ‘liberation’ groups was meant to reinforce this narrative in its favor. That it was able to counter Soviet influence in Africa was an added bonus. Stutter lists out Chinese support for President Mobutu in the 1970s against the soviets, its support for Mugabe against Rhodesia and its support for groups opposed to the UN backed regime in the Congo-Leopoldville.

Africa-China relations were marked by a dip in the 1970s following Mao’s death. There was a realization that past African endeavours were expensive. China’s standing on the world stage and the legitimacy of its intervention in Africa was subject to the quality of life of its own people back home. More importantly, China’s reluctant acceptance of aid from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund in the 1970s put it in direct competition with the African countries it was meant to aid.

China’s re-entry into Africa in late 1990 was forceful. President jiang Zemin called China and Africa to be al weather friends. This was followed by 23 economic and technical agreements. In January 1997 Foreign Minister Qian Qichen visited 6 African countries. During his December visit to South Africa the same year, South Africa recognised the People’s Republic of China. A year later vice President Hu Jintao visited 4 African countries. For the past 30 years every Chinese foreign minister’s first oversea trip has been to Africa. China’s anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden has given it an opportunity to increase its interactions with African countries and to also claim legitimacy as a regional stakeholder.

Comparisons of European colonization of Africa with China’s ‘Century of humiliation’ regardless of accuracy has been constructed as a powerful narrative.  China has championed the vision of fuqiang (富强)or ‘prosperous’. Though the terminology is meant to stress the importance of national rejuvenation in China, it is being exported across the world and to African countries.The narrative merges seamlessly in the anti-colonial and anti-western sentiments in contemporary Africa. China undoubtedly has sufficient soft power to exercise despite lacking pre-modern historical connections.

India-Africa Relations: Championing multilateral and equitable partnerships

By 2008 China had replaced the European Union (EU) and the United States (US) as Africa’s major trading partners. For India, this means an immense opportunity cost. Just like for China, Africa for India is a means to seek legitimacy as a leader of the global south. India has successfully led to the inclusion of the African Union (AU) as a member of the G20. Soft power has been India’s best card in the region. Recently, with initiatives such as Pravasi Bhartiya Diwas India has started to leverage soft power across the world, including Africa. India has included Eastern Africa within its definition of the Indo-Pacific to build its vision of an ‘Indian’ ocean.  India’s acceptance as a observer member of the Indian Ocean Commission, and the Djibouti Code of Conduct as an observer member in 2020 ratified the role it plays in the region.  India’s active role in Humanitarian Assistence and Disaster Relief (HADR) missions in the Indo-Pacific has brought it immense good will. In 2020 alone India provided HADR in Mozambique after landfall of Cyclone Idai; in Madagascar after and flooding and landslides, in Mauritius after an Oilspill and in Sri Lanka to tackle an Oil tanker fire.

India has sought to deal with Africa bilaterally and multilaterally. In August 2023 at the BRICS -Africa outreach and BRICS Plus dialogue the Prime Minister Modi invited countries to join the “International Solar Alliance, One Sun One World One Grid, Coalition for Disaster Resilient Infrastructure, One Earth One Health, Big Cat Alliance and Global Centre for Traditional Medicine. He also offered to share India’s Digital Public Infrastructure Stack.”  With an eye on Africa and China, the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) within the framework of Security and Growth for All (SAGAR) initiative has been a means to create a geopolitical multilateral framework to secure Indian interests.

In 2022 China-Africa trade reached $282 Billion while India-Africa trade was only a third of this at $89.6 Billion in FY 2021-2022. Unlike China, India does not have the ability to leverage resources at the same scale as China. Instead it has resorted to building soft infrastructure. One could argue that it has done so without strings.

Competing for Africa’s Resources: An overview

Africa has become significant source of competition between India and China in the arena of energy and critical minerals – the two highly sought after resources in Africa. It is from this lens that we can analyse the ‘scramble for Africa’ that the dragon and Elephant are engaged in. India and China both seek reliable and diversified oil supplies and are looking to tap into the mineral reserves, especially critical mineral reserves of Africa to feed their growing economies. This has made these two areas highly sought after and will arguably make it highly contested in the near future.

In the 2000s Indian and China competed for oil blocks across Africa. Due to the lack of comparable financial might coupled with government red tape, India failed to outcompete Chinese SOEs. While energy trade between India and Africa is growing it is not at the same pace as China’s energy trade with Africa. In 2020 Africa's share of India's oil imports was about 34 million tonnes. India's imports of gas from Africa are also gradually increasing and State-run Indian companies have invested $8 billion in oil and gas assets in various African nations. As it stands, Africa is the second-largest destination for Indian refined fuels. China on the other hand has expanded its presence in the region and today operates in nearly 20 African countries and is aiming to expand its investments on the continent. It has spent much more than the $8 billion state-run Indian oil companies have invested cumulatively in Africa.

Similarly, competition between India and China has been apparent in their bid to secure critical minerals for their respective economies. A growing India has a pressing need for critical minerals especially energy storage in the form of lithium-ion batteries. Like the rest of the world India depends overwhelmingly on China and Chinese controlled supply chains. Many of these supply chains - especially of Cobalt, Chromium, manganese - find their origins in Africa. Africa will therefore play an important role given that is hosts some of the largest rare earth reserves.

India in its bid to secure critical minerals established KABIL (Khanij Bidesh India Limited) to secure India’s mineral and energy security overseas. Recently, Congo and Zimbabwe have featured in India’s quest to secure critical minerals. However, KABIL and India, however, are starting off at a disadvantaged position vis-à-vis established Chinese mining enterprises.

Competition between India and China in the minerals and energy sector are symptomatic of the larger competition between the two countries in Africa. It cannot be said for sure if competition with China in Africa is a zero-sum game however as both countries grow competition may transform to rivalry. Interestingly, at the G20 in 2023 India sought to form a consensus to “develop a shared vision on critical minerals covering aspects from monitoring to strategic stockpiling”. The proposal was unsurprisingly shot down by China. African nations too are likely to hedge their bets and seek India is an alternative to China. Moreover, China has not always delivered on its promises.

Projecting India as a viable alternative

India, aware of its inability to match China’s financial might, understands the importance of countering the China in no small part due to witnessing the consequences of Chinese expansionism in its own backyard -South Asia. In the view of Joseph Nye, the presence of corruption, inequality, and lack of democracy in China makes it “attractive” to authoritarian and semi-authoritarian developing countries. The South Asian example makes this quite evident. From Pakistan’s influential military to Rajapaksha to Muizzu (considered to the place holder for Yameen since Yameen has been barred from contesting elections), leaders displaying authoritarian tendencies have curried favour with China. It is likely that this is true for Africa too. Interestingly, officers of African armies who trained in People Liberation Army (PLA) training programs are now in high positions.

It is therefore in India’s interest to advocate for more democratic governments across Africa. Whether it can successfully do so and to what extent is moot. Democracy must blossom organically or at most with ‘crutches’; anything more might border on interference. Like in South Asia, in Africa too, the game will be afoot. The biggest draw of the Beijing Consensus has been the ability of the Chinese communist party in achieving a high rate of growth over the past three decades. For developing countries, the Beijing Consensus appears as a panacea for poverty. This is not without merit. It also serves as an excuse for the establishment to paper over democratic reforms as long as development is achieved even if at the cost of rent-seeking and high debts.

India’s involvement in Africa is necessitated by an ever-increasing Chinese presence. East Africa is especially crucial to China’s and India’s interests. For the latter more so as the Zhēn zhū liàn (珍珠链) grows bigger. What is certain is that India’s energy security, mineral security, and national security to an extent rests upon its African diplomacy. India cannot compete with China in Africa on an equal footing. It needs to create a new narrative. India must cultivate the “New Delhi consensus” as the antithesis of China’s moves in Africa. Equal non-exploitative relationships, multilateral frameworks, and a champion of democratic ideals must be the defining feature of a “New Delhi Consensus” in Africa.


Noel Therattil is an advocate with a MA in Space and Telecom Law from NALSAR (DDE). He is currently a Schwarzman Scholar at Schwarzman College, Tsinghua University. Prior to this he was a LAMP fellow (2019-2020) and was a Young Professional in the Anti-Trust Division (ATD) of the Competition Commission of India (2022-2023).

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