Africa and the Indo-Pacific

Ashmita Rana
25/07/2021

Picture Courtesy: PTI

INTRODUCTION

It will not be an overstatement to claim that the Indo-Pacific is currently one of the most important geopolitical spaces in the world and that a majority of countries around the globe have actively increased their indulgence in the region. These countries have identified their stakes in the region and most of them have even chalked out their respective Indo-Pacific strategies. These strategies often identify potential “like-minded” partners for cooperation in the region. Africa is one continent, which seems to have been more or less sidelined in the strategies of major stakeholders in the Indo-Pacific and the African countries have not yet endorsed their own “strategies” for the region.  However, the African countries do hold significance in the Indo-Pacific region and there has been an increase in the level of engagement with them by competing powers. Despite this, the continent is largely devoid of any major individual role of its own.

AFRICA’S STAKES IN THE INDO-PACIFIC

The concept of the Indo-Pacific commonly includes the east coast of Africa. It consists of five countries that share a border with the Indian Ocean- South Africa, Mozambique, Tanzania, Somalia, and Kenya; the island nations of Madagascar, Comoros, Seychelles and Mauritius; and Eritrea, Sudan, Egypt and Djibouti which lie in the Red Sea. Given their strategic locations, many countries are developing ports and military bases in this region. For instance, Djibouti alone hosts a number of military bases by foreign powers like the USA, France, Italy, Japan and China. These bases are used for activities ranging from drone activities for surveillance to naval and air force operations. Also, earlier this year, China completed the construction of a large pier in its Djibouti naval base which is capable of hosting an aircraft carrier.

The countries hosting foreign bases do benefit economically but at the cost of long-term security implications. In the past too, the African Union Peace and Security Council had expressed  deep concern regarding the foreign military bases in African countries along with their inability to monitor the movement of weapons in-and-out of these bases.

Being the theatre of power tussle that it is, the Indo-Pacific waters witness a growing number of joint exercises. These patrolling exercises often involve navigation through the Suez Canal or around the coast of Africa. Moreover, China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) includes the Maritime Silk Road (MSR), of which the littoral states of the Indo-Pacific are an important segment. The BRI and MSR policy have attracted Chinese investments in East Africa with hopes for the development of the region, increase in jobs and exports, promotion of cultural exchange, etc. However, one cannot turn a blind eye to the rising concerns of the possibility of a Chinese debt trap. Statistics testify that the public debt in Sub-Saharan Africa has jumped from 34% in 2013 to 53% in 2017. The fact that 72% of Kenya’s external debt is owned by China is enough to justify the debt trap concerns. Thus, despite being on the backburner of the Indo-Pacific action, the continent of Africa faces economic and security related implications from the emerging geopolitical competition and contestation in the region.

PROSPECTS FOR SOUTH-SOUTH COOPERATION

Despite China’s inroads into Africa, India has had a significant engagement with Africa. Strictly speaking in terms of cooperation in the Indo-Pacific, the progress has not yet reached its full potential. For instance, the Asia-Africa Growth Corridor (India and Japan’s joint project to foster development, cooperation and connectivity between Asia and Africa, announced in 2017) has not achieved any concrete results thus far. There, however, remain multiple prospects for South-South cooperation between the two. India’s External Affairs Minister’s latest visit to the African state of Kenya has generated optimism about deepening ties between the former and the African Union.

Both Kenya, which is an important member of the African Union, and India, reiterated “their strong commitment to South-South Cooperation.” It was interesting to note that amidst talks on economic and development related issues, the Indo-Pacific found a key place. The two maritime neighbours underlined the importance of joint endeavours to enhance the “security, safety and prosperity of the Indian Ocean Region.” Both sides also extensively discussed the security situation in the Indo-Pacific and the Horn of Africa.

This bilateral meeting may have already set the tone for greater cooperation between India and the African Union. Apart from strengthening their economic ties, the two can synergise to promote a free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific. With initiatives like the AAGC, not only can South-South value chains be developed to strengthen economic ties but also a partnership can be matured, which is a model for “non-hegemonic” and “consensus-based” connectivity between the regions.

AFRICA’S DILEMMA

The strategic location and rich natural resources of Africa have attracted many foreign powers. There is, what is commonly known as, “the new scramble for Africa.” However, there remain concerns that the continent is still being marginalised in the Indo-Pacific. Moreover, the presence of competing powers and the US-China rivalry being played out in the Indo-Pacific have raised apprehensions regarding African countries’ long-term peace, security and sovereignty. US-China tensions are bound to present challenges to Africa, which tries to secure its interests without becoming a battleground for great power rivalry.

Africa’s dilemma can be gauged through several instances in the past, one being the impact of the ban on Huawei on South Africa’s telecommunications sector. The US government had banned China’s Huawei from incorporating technology from the US and non-US firms into its services and products in 2019. Within one month of the ban, the CEOs of four major South African telecom companies (Telkom, Vodacom, Cell C, MTN) had to write a joint letter to the President of South Africa. The letter listed the potential damage to the South African telecommunications sector and urged intervention on the ban. The President had later on issued a statement in support of the CEOs and Huawei. The biggest challenge for Africa remains to craft out an optimum balancing act to save its interests from the heat of the Indo-Pacific competition.

WAY FORWARD

Africa is simultaneously battling poverty, climate change and a deadly third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. It is clear that the Indo-Pacific developments have a significant impact on the continent, especially on the east coast and island nations. This necessitates a balanced and pragmatic approach. More than bilateral efforts by the African countries, the African Union’s role will be crucial. Consider the case of the presence of military bases in the continent. The African Union lacks any control over the increasing number of the foreign military forces because they are hosted by virtue of bilateral agreements between the host states and the foreign powers. Therefore, for a unified and inclusive approach to secure Africa’s interests in the Indo-Pacific and beyond, the African Union will need to lead the way.

Ensuring that the major Indo-Pacific strategies expand their outlook to prevent its marginalisation is crucial for Africa. Even while doing so, it needs to complement it by strengthening its existing strategies like the Agenda 2063. Agenda 2063 is a strategic framework which highlights Africa’s goals for inclusive and sustainable development, based on the commitment to Pan-African unity. International platforms like the IORA (Indian Ocean Rim Association) are also essential for amplifying Africa’s voice on the developments in the Indo-Pacific region. A pragmatic Indo-Pacific strategy can surely give a boost to Africa’s efforts in achieving its Pan African Vision of “an integrated, prosperous and peaceful Africa, driven by its own citizens, representing a dynamic force in the international arena.”

* The Author is a Research Intern at the Kalinga Institute of Indo-Pacific Studies.

 

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