New Delhi: Rivalry between India and China for control of natural resources and energy assets beyond their borders has acquired a new dimension.
The Asian giants are now competing to build parliaments in African countries deemed to be of strategic importance as they seek to gain an extra edge in their quest for energy resources.
India is building Ghana’s parliament. China is constructing parliaments in Malawi and Lesotho, and agreed to fund the construction of a third in Zimbabwe. In addition, India is building a parliament in Afghanistan.
Ghana, Malawi, Lesotho and Zimbabwe are all former British colonies that are seeking to distance themselves from their past. A growing sense of nationalism is seemingly finding expression in the construction of new capitols.
For China and India, it has presented an opportunity for economic diplomacy—a chance to gain goodwill in a continent where they have been locked in fierce competition for energy assets.
“What can be a bigger thing than a country calling you to build their parliament? It greatly helps in relationship building,” said a senior official in India’s ministry of external affairs who did not want to be identified. “While this is not a prescriptive approach, going forward, whoever asks us for assistance, we will help them with building their parliament,” the official added.
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For decades, India enjoyed strong relations with Africa, stemming from a shared colonial past and India’s support for independence movements in the continent. But in more recent years, Chinese economic diplomacy and aid put India-African ties in the shade. India found that its economic interests in Africa were dwarfed by China’s.
Chinese companies have beaten Indian firms in Angola and Nigeria. Indian firms lost in Angola because they couldn’t match the Chinese offer of a $2 billion (Rs9,140 crore today) soft loan.
India’s trade with Africa stands at around $39 billion a year compared with China’s $100 billion. Strategic analysts are critical of India’s slow response to China.
“China, for the last 50-60 years, has focussed on a simple strategy. They want a building in the national capital, which is the centrepiece of the architectural plan and reminds of China. While the investment is nominal, there is a long-term symbolic benefit,” said Brahma Chellaney, professor of strategic studies at the Centre for Policy Research, a New Delhi-based think tank.
“It is for India to learn from China. The Indian government does not move till it is forced to move. China is making rapid moves in Africa and we have belatedly woken up to this realization. (Rather) than being a step ahead we are following their footsteps.”
Both India and China have extended line of credits to build infrastructure in energy-rich African countries as they seek access to oil and gas blocks to fuel their growing economies. At the India-Africa Forum summit held in India in 2008, the government announced credit lines of about $5.4 billion by 2012 to African countries. It has so far extended $1 billion in lines of credit and will give an additional $500 million to these nations.
Interestingly, China denies any link between the construction of parliaments and securing resources.
“We are not here for resources,” said Zhou Haihong, first secretary and deputy head of mission at the Chinese embassy in Malawi.
Mint reported on 9 January about possibility of Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao visiting Malawi this year for the parliament building’s inauguration. Besides hydropower potential, Malawi is rich in uranium, coal and bauxite deposits.
Questions emailed to the Chinese embassy in New Delhi on Friday remained unanswered at the time of filing this story.
India depends on imports to meet 78% of its oil requirements and is particularly vulnerable to price volatility in crude oil.
“All African diplomacy is focussed on securing natural reources, primarily oil and gas. Building a parliament is a step in the process. It is a very visible sign of interest in that economy,” said Anish De, chief executive at Mercados Asia, an energy consulting firm.
As the world’s fifth largest energy consumer, India accounts for around 3.5% of the global consumption of crude. It will become the third largest oil importer after the US and China before 2025, with its energy demand expected to almost double by 2030, according to the International Energy Agency.