Do high-level international summits herald Africa's century?

James Wertsch, Shen Dingli and Swaran Singh say high-profile summits for Africa hosted by China, India and the United States reflect the continent's growing importance in trade and security issues

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 01 November, 2015, 10:02am
UPDATED : Sunday, 01 November, 2015, 10:02am

Africa today is one of the fastest growing regions in the world, blessed with abundant resources, virgin lands and fresh waters, and all major powers are busy cultivating the continent's new generation of ambitious and assertive democratic leaders.

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India last week joined the special league with China and the United States in hosting a high-profile Third India-Africa Forum Summit attended by heads of state or government from 40 African nations. They were accompanied not just by their trade and foreign ministers and senior officials from all 54 African nations but also by heads of regional organisations and the African Union. This four-day jamboree brought forth not just the boisterous pomp and promise of bonding with each other but also underlined serious bilateral and regional perspectives for expanding their cooperation and working together in coming times.

That the major powers of China, India and the US are now courting it make it a prism through which strategic relations between the three can be better understood

Starting with the Arabs in 1977, the Japanese and Europeans have also hosted Africa summits but none of them match the scale of summits held by the US, China and India. Barack Obama, the first African-American president in the White House, hosted an equally grand inaugural US-Africa Leaders Summit last August and the next president is likely to hold its follow-up in 2017, if not earlier.

But the mother-of-all has been the five consecutive summits of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation. The fact that the sixth one is happening in Johannesburg next month is already igniting comparisons between the major powers' efforts to engage Africa.

Already, 1.5 million overseas Chinese and 2.1 million Indians are living across the African continent, and dozens of African heads of state and senior officials are alumni of American educational institutions.

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Africa's high growth rates in recent years have greatly boosted its appeal to others. That the major powers of China, India and the US are now courting it make it a prism through which strategic relations between the three can be better understood. Perhaps even before the so-called Asian Century comes to fruition, some will be foretelling the advent of the African Century.

Like the Chinese and American Africa summits, the New Delhi Africa summit also issued an ambitious declaration and action plan to show a shared commitment to accelerate the pace of their mutual trade, commerce and security cooperation.

But surely all three - China, India and the US - cannot be doing the same things. They must develop their niche areas and strong points.

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While most nations in Africa are looking for technology transfers and industry and infrastructure building expertise from China, India and the US, the continent's rich mineral resources, gas and oil deposits and fertile agricultural land remain the focus for their trade partners, especially for rapidly developing China and India. Accordingly, the New Delhi summit, for instance, was preceded by meetings of trade and commerce ministers, as is the case with China and the US.

As of today, China's five consecutive summits (in Beijing in 2000, 2006 and 2012, Addis Ababa in 2003 and Sharm el-Sheikh in 2009) have given Beijing a clear head start in both formulating and implementing major bilateral and regional initiatives. China's trade with Africa was worth US$222 billion in 2014, three times that of either the US or India. During the last three years, India's trade with Africa has only grown from US$70 to US$71.5 billion. Will China, which has taken centre stage in the Asian Century, also take the lead for a possible African Century as and when it arrives?

In their own way, all three have had strong bonds with African countries. All three were major supporters of Africa's decolonisation and its follow-up economic development and reconstruction.

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India started its Indian Technical and Economic Cooperation assistance programme way back in 1967 with the primary aim of helping African countries. Successive Indian leaders have shared close personal ties with several African icons.

Similarly, in the initial stages China had little interest in African resources and its involvement with a few African nations was driven primarily by ideology. In return, China expected Africa's support for its Taiwan policy, especially at the United Nations.

India needs Africa's support today in its campaign for a Comprehensive Convention Against International Terrorism. Like the US, China has begun showing greater interest in maintaining regional peace and stability. Both countries have been sending medical teams to help stem the Mers outbreak in Africa. China is building railways, the US is building hospitals while India provides pharmaceuticals.

India and China have worked together from the Al Furat oil fields in the Middle East to anti-piracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden, where the US has also been a major player. The two Asian nations could also coordinate their peacekeeping roles in their UN operations across Africa.

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Most experts credit China's Africa summits for the newfound emphasis that both Obama and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi have placed on engaging Africa at the highest level, which reflects their anxieties about the Chinese juggernaut moving so unstoppably. India began this exercise in earnest in April 2008 in New Delhi followed by a second India-Africa summit in Addis Ababa in 2011 but, unlike last month, the earlier summits were attended by just over a dozen African leaders. Now, the stature of the third summit has grown to match those hosted by China and the United States.

This has set the policy and opinion makers in these countries busy drawing possible comparisons, while also underlining an urgent need for coordination among these three global players with stakes in African peace and prosperity.

Professor James Wertsch is vice-chancellor (international relations) at Washington University. Professor Shen Dingli is associate dean at the Institute of International Studies, Fudan University, Shanghai. Professor Swaran Singh is chair of the Centre for International Politics, Organisation and Disarmament, at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi