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Updated Jan 16, 2020

Since independence in 1947, India has maintained a strong connection to Africa, first as a global representative of decolonization and South-South development coordination, then later as a trading partner and energy supplier. In 1991, with liberalization impacting both Africa and the Indian subcontinent, India began approaching Africa with a greater interest in expanding economic and security cooperation. African states are also key allies in India’s ambition to reform the United Nations and eventually secure a permanent seat at the Security Council. While recognizing that India lags far behind China in terms of investment and sees no purpose in trying to directly compete with Beijing, successive Indian governments have initiated their own Africa-India summits in 2008, 2011, and 2015 modeled after similar China-Africa summits that began back in 2000.

On a political level, India has greatly increased its presence in Africa, with twenty-nine embassies as of 2018 and plans to open eighteen new ones by 2021. Since Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi took power in 2014, every African country has been visited at least once by an Indian minister. The prime minister himself has visited several, most recently at a BRICS conference held in South Africa in 2018. Coinciding with these political overtures is greater investment in Africa-India trade, with notable returns in the past two decades.

India’s Export-Import Bank has been working with a handful of African states since 2002 to support imports of Indian goods to these select countries, granting Indian companies exporting to the region greater support from Indian embassies. In 2004, India launched the Techno-Economic Approach for Africa-India Movement to expand trade between India and West Africa, particularly in Equatorial Guinea to develop its oil industry. In 2008, Indian introduced a series of tariff reductions for African Least Developed Countries. The net result of these efforts has been a massive growth in trade volume between Indian and Africa; trade increased from $5.3 billion in 2001 to $12 billion in 2005 and $70 billion in 2013. India also benefits from sizeable populations of diaspora Indians (around 9 percent of the global diaspora population) living in Africa, who help facilitate both investment, educational exchange, and demand for Indian goods and services.

There is a caveat to these impressive numbers: nearly two-thirds of all trade is in the form of oil and gas products, with Africa providing around 24 percent of India’s total global energy supply. The continent is also important for its uranium reserves. India is not a signatory of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, making relations with Niger and Namibia of great strategic concern since the latter two are not members of the Nuclear Suppliers Group. All the same, India is highly engaged with regional development groups, including the Southern African Development Community, Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa, the Indian Ocean Rim Association, and the International Solar Alliance, launched at the 2015 India-Africa Summit to promote greater use of solar energy.

India maintains a large presence of UN blue helmet peacekeepers, with around 8,000 soldiers and military observers stationed with various UN peacekeeping missions.  However, security relations between Africa and India have fixated largely on the Indian Ocean, in particular the island nations of the Seychelles and Mauritius. The Indian Ocean is a crucial linchpin in India’s economy, which explains why India has been involved with anti-piracy operations since 2008. Here again India’s trepidation towards China factors into their military strategy. China’s investment in the port facilities of African countries bordering the Indian Ocean has alarmed Indian strategists, who worry these ports could function as future bases and militarily encircle India.

Despite the combined increase in diplomatic, economic, and military cooperation between India and Africa, Indian foreign policy on the continent faces several shortcomings. South East Asia and the Middle East still remain far greater priorities for Indian foreign policy, save for Africa’s energy exports that have allowed India to diversify its energy portfolio. India’s claim to be a global leader in representing developing nations is also threatened by continual Chinese investment in Africa. African leaders turn towards India as a necessary counterweight against Chinese dependency, but Indian investment lags greatly behind that of China. China has also stepped up its involvement with peacekeeping missions, weakening one area India could cite as strong proof of its commitment.

Moving forward, German and European analysts suggest India further encourage triangular development cooperation in regards to Africa. Instead of a strict South-South engagement, India should continue its move towards including German and EU initiatives to further develop Africa, improve India’s economic standing on the continent, and reinforce its soft-power image as a necessary partner for African growth.

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