With his trademark panache, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is hosting the largest gathering of African leaders ever on Indian soil this week. Though India was indeed marginal to developments in Africa during the Cold War years, its political commitment to the Non-Aligned Movement and its emphasis on South-South cooperation in the context of New Delhi’s diplomatic support for African nationalist movements, left it well positioned to take up engagement across the continent and forge new ties.

The end of the Cold War presented new opportunities for India to interact with Africa. India’s rapid economic growth needed new markets and access to resources. As a result, economic engagement with Africa has become central to India’s new approach. This is related to India’s search for energy security, in which Africa is playing an increasingly important role.

India is seeking diversification of its oil supplies away from the Middle East, and Africa will be playing an important role in India’s energy matrix. The search for oil has taken India to various African states, including Nigeria, Sudan, Cote d’Ivoire, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Guinea-Bissau and Senegal. Africa accounts for about 20 percent of India’s oil imports, which are likely to grow in the future.

India is now placing new attention on Africa, opening diplomatic missions on the continent as well as instigating regular high-level political interactions. India is promising loans with easy terms to those nations willing to trade, and is contributing to education, railways and peacekeeping. India has substantially increased its aid and assistance to Africa. It is building economic and commercial ties with Africa even as it is contributing to the development of African countries through cooperation and technical assistance.

Despite India’s strengths, China has enjoyed a much higher profile in Africa in recent years. It almost seems as if Africa is the new El Dorado, given the vigor with which China seems to be pursuing the region. Top Chinese officials have been regularly visiting the continent for the last several years, underscoring the solid commitment of the communist leadership to make China the principal external partner of the continent. China organized the China-Africa forum with great fanfare in 2006. It was attended by the political leaders of 48 of the 53 African countries. It was this event that forced India to organize its own India-Africa summit in 2008.

For many African nations, the most attractive aspect of Chinese involvement in their continent is its no-strings attached aid policy. The aid from the West is often linked to good governance and human rights clauses, which the political leaders in Africa find unpalatable and describe as “neo-colonialism,” an approach aimed at imposing Western political values on them.

China has so far tended to ignore the global lending standards intended to fight corruption in the region. Even the International Monetary Fund and World Bank see their years of painstaking efforts to arrange conditional debt relief being undermined by China’s unrestricted lending. But China has made “noninterference in other states’ internal affairs” a central tenet of its foreign policy. This has as much to do with making China an attractive partner for Africans as it has to do with China’s own sensitivities toward interference in its domestic politics.

China’s soft power has also been ascendant in Africa. It is being viewed as a land of opportunity and prosperity, replacing the role that the U.S. and Europe have long played in the consciousness of the people of Africa. African students are going to China in larger numbers than ever. China is leveraging its soft power — culture, investment, academia, foreign aid, public diplomacy — more effectively than before to influence Africa and other regions in the developing world.

Beijing’s policy of using financial and military aid to secure oil fields in Africa has resulted in New Delhi losing out.

The fear of lagging behind China in its quest for global influence is forcing India to shape up. But in many ways it might already be too late. Despite India’s long-standing cultural and commercial ties with Africa, India now finds itself playing catch-up to China because it ignored the continent during the 1990s.

New Delhi has been tardy in seizing new opportunities in Africa and capitalizing on its long history of engagement with the continent. New Delhi’s failure to secure backing from African nations for its permanent membership on the U.N. Security Council jolted the government out of its slumber, galvanizing it to strengthen ties with a continent that has often complained of indifference by New Delhi. China nudged the African Union into taking a position that demanded not only a permanent representation on the Security Council but also veto power. This led to the collapse of the nascent attempts to expand the Security Council.

The fierce competition between China and India for resources, minerals and food to fuel their economies has been likened to the so-called scramble for Africa among European countries in the late 19th century. But this is not really a competition. China is far ahead and India is scrambling to catch up. New Delhi’s diplomatic energies should be invested in regaining India’s traditional influence on the continent. The India Africa Forum Summit should be the beginning of a long new journey for India in Africa.

Harsh V. Pant teaches in the Defense Studies Department at King’s College London with a focus on Asian security.

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