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India-Africa relations: Out to sea

Following a high level summit in October, Africa-India cooperation has snapped into focus as top leaders seek to foster closer relations.


Following a high level summit in October, Africa-India cooperation has snapped into focus as top leaders seek to foster closer relations.

During the summit, India’s expertise in agriculture, business services and ICT were much vaunted, as was the subcontinent’s longstanding trade and migration relationships with Africa – particularly on the eastern and southern coasts.

However, maritime security and commerce is another area in which African countries are seeking greater collaboration with India. Securing coastlines from the threat of piracy, safeguarding ecological systems and hampering illegal fishing activities are some of the key ‘Blue Economy’ areas they wish to address.

India, for its part, is taking advantage of the slowdown in China – a key trade and investment partner for many countries in Africa – to offer themselves as an alternative commercial partner. At present, China-Africa bilateral trade stands at more than $200bn in 2014, compared to a relatively low India-Africa trade figure of $72bn.

Maritime security is the other angle. China’s announcement in 2015 that they will build a military base in Djibouti, in the Horn of Africa, is a signal of the country’s increasing ability to project power into the Indian Ocean.

A military installation located on the strategic Straits of Bab el-Mandab allows China greater control over the entrance to the Red Sea, which connects Indian Ocean trade routes to the Mediterranean and Europe. This is a major factor in India’s desire to establish strong relationships with African coastal and island states.

The Indian Ocean is the main supply route for India’s energy and trade, with 90 percent of the country’s energy supply transported through its sea lanes. As India is now the world’s third largest energy consumer – behind China and the US – protecting these trade links is vital to the country’s energy security.

China and India have long had an uneasy relationship. Disputes over their shared land border led to war in 1962, while the increasing presence of Chinese submarines in the Indian Ocean has been a more recent source of tension.

Island nation collaboration

Prior to the fanfare of the October summit, Indian diplomatic efforts under prime minister Narendra Modi in Africa largely focused on Indian Ocean island nations.

The Seychelles is largely regarded as a tourist destination, but the archipelago off the coast of east Africa is working with India to become an investment destination as well. The two signed a pact of cooperation in 2015.

The agreement is intended to promote sustainable ocean development in the region, improve the exchange of tax information and increase partnership on agricultural projects.

Mr Modi also announced that a second Dornier aircraft and a further Interceptor Coast guard would be given as gifts to the Seychelles during his visit in March 2014.

This bestowal was not entirely altruistic. The Seychelles is a strategic location which can provide India with favourable access to Africa’s burgeoning markets.

Security cooperation between the two is also on the rise. In 2014, India leased the Seychelles island of Assumption for commercial development. In December, India announced it would build a naval base on the island – its first in the Indian Ocean.

Mauritius has also strengthened ties with India. India has provided the country with a $500m line of credit as well as funding a coastal radar surveillance system and an offshore patrol vessel.

Echoing interests in the Seychelles, it is in India’s interests to build ties as the small island can help safeguard sea lanes vital to Indian energy imports and trade.

In addition, Indian survey ships have undertaken hydrographic surveys for Mauritius, Tanzania, Kenya, the Seychelles and others. The Indian Naval Academy recently trained a number of Mauritian cadets on the subject.

India and Mauritius signed a five-year extension to their Memorandum of Understanding on hydrography in 2015, and India has provided Mauritius with seven navigational charts over the past 10 years.

Building the Blue Economy

Security interests aside, maritime commercial development is a key component of Africa’s 2050 Integrated Maritime Strategy and the African Union’s Agenda 2063.

The latter affirms that “Africa’s Blue economy, which is three times the size of its landmass, shall be a major contributor to continental transformation and growth”.

Illegal, unregulated and unreported (IUU) fishing is having a huge impact on the viability of the fisheries industry in the western Indian Ocean. Up to 18 percent of the catch in this area qualifies as IUU, making it increasingly difficult to establish sustainable fishing practices and jeopardising future food supply.

Former Somali pirates, for instance, often “[revert] to prior, familiar patterns of illicit behaviour, including armed protection of fishing activities and illegal fishing”, according to a UN Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea report from 2013.

“There is a strong link between IUU fishing and regional instability and violence,” says Jason Scorse, director of the Center for the Blue Economy.

India’s navy have long provided military resources to fend off piracy threats and patrol fishing waters, particularly around the Horn of Africa. Indian naval vessels have escorted close to 3000 merchant ships into the Gulf of Aden over the past eight years.

The illegal fisheries problem is not limited to the Indian Ocean coast, however. According to the Africa Progress Panel, West Africa loses $1.3bn in potential revenue to illegal fisheries per year.

If properly developed, however, maritime economic activities could be a huge boon for Africa’s coastal nations. Industries associated with the Blue Economy consistently see higher labour productivity levels than the regional average, for instance.

The fishing sector is around 150 percent more productive than the overall average in Uganda, and more than 500 percent in Madagascar, according to data from the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA).

Fundamentally, however, the main obstacles to the future of the Blue Economy in Africa stem from poor governance, as well as so-called ‘sea blindness’ – where policymakers and the wider public fail to realise the contributions made by the ocean.

“The oceans and coasts are radically difficult common resources to manage, so good governance is absolutely essential and the lack of it plagues many African nations,” says Mr Scorse.

Collaboration with willing partners such as India may help governments in the region to better manage these fragile and complex ecosystems.