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International Relations

India and China woo Africa ahead of BRICS summit

Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping bear gifts for resource-rich nations

Chinese President Xi Jinping shakes hands with his Rwandan counterpart, Paul Kagame, during a press conference in Kigali, Rwanda, on July 23.    © AP

NEW DELHI -- On route to the summit of the world's five major emerging economies in Johannesburg this week, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping have been touring some key African nations in a bid to expand diplomatic and economic ties with the resource-rich region.

As part of his three-nation, five-day African tour, Modi on Monday landed in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda. His arrival came hours after Xi concluded a visit to the tiny nation, described by Indian government officials as "an important gateway" to eastern Africa.

Earlier this year, the IMF stated that Rwanda is Africa's third fastest growing economy. Human rights groups, though, report free speech restrictions in the country.

On Tuesday, Modi traveled to a Rwandan village where he presented a gift of 200 dairy cows, a contribution to President Paul Kagame's Girinka scheme, which gives cows to poor families who can then use the animals to transform their lives.

India and Rwanda in January 2017 formed a strategic partnership, the highest level of bilateral ties. Modi this week became the first Indian Prime Minister to visit Rwanda.

After Rwanda, Modi is to head to Uganda, the current chair of the East African Community. He will then make his way to South Africa to attend the 10th summit of BRICS nations -- Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. The meeting begins Wednesday and goes through Friday. Russian President Vladimir Putin is also expected to attend.

During Modi's ongoing visit, India and Rwanda have inked several cooperation agreements in agriculture, defense, culture, trade, and leather and allied sectors, according to an Indian government statement.

As for Xi, he and Rwandan President Kagame, the current chair of the African Union, signed multiple agreements regarding the "Belt and Road" initiative and other areas of cooperation, according to China's official Xinhua News Agency.

Xi's Rwanda visit was the first by a Chinese head of state. He left the country for a state visit in South Africa and to participate at the BRICS summit. His final stop as part of his first overseas trip since being re-elected President in March will be to Mauritius, in the Indian Ocean east of Madagascar.

People wait outside the Presidential Palace for the arrival of Chinese President Xi Jinping during his visit to Dakar, Senegal, on July 21.   © Reuters

China views Africa as key to its Belt and Road expansion, which entails investing huge amounts in infrastructure not only in Africa but also in Central Asia and Europe. During Xi's Dakar visit, Senegal became the first West African country to sign Belt and Road contracts with China.

China is Africa's largest trading partner. Not only does China want to build strong economic ties with the continent, it is keen to deepen military relations with its countries.

The communist country has set up its first overseas naval base in Djibouti, which has a strategic location on the Horn of Africa where the Gulf of Aden meets the Red Sea.

India is also looking to expand its influence across Africa, for both strategic and economic reasons. However, India is no match for China's deep pockets or trade volume. India-Africa trade is worth more than $50 billion, which pales to the China-Africa total of nearly $170 billion.

Modi's visit "is a reflection of the intensity of our engagement with Africa and the priority we attach to our relations with African countries," said T. S. Tirumurti, an economic relations secretary for the Ministry of External Affairs. Tirumurti was speaking ahead of Modi's departure for Africa.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi poses with African leaders during the inaugural session of the India-Africa Forum Summit in New Delhi in 2015.    © Reuters

Since Modi came to power in May 2014, India has increasingly engaged with Africa. New Delhi in October 2015 received more than 40 heads of state and government at the third India-Africa Forum Summit. While China and India are vying for clout in Africa, India says it does not see itself in a competition with China. "Our relations with African countries go back a very, very long way," Tirumurti said. They go "back... to Mahatma Gandhi."

This week's BRICS summit, to be focused on Africa, will take place as U.S. President Donald Trump conducts a trade war, mostly with China, and imposes sanctions on Russia and Iran, two countries with which China and India have strong economic relations.

"Despite continuing political instability in Brazil... the BRICS nations need to underpin the international rules of commerce and investment," K.C. Singh, a former secretary in the Indian Ministry of External Affairs, wrote in The Asian Age newspaper. "This is necessary to counter the anti-globalization sentiment strongly advanced by the United States under President Trump and breeding in some European Union nations.

"To achieve this, they must enhance intra-BRICS trade and investment and energize BRICS' New Development Bank, which has already approved four infrastructure projects worth $5 billion."

Rajiv Bhatia, a distinguished fellow at the Mumbai-based foreign policy think tank Gateway House and former envoy to South Africa, says BRICS leaders should be realistic.

"It is best to have moderate expectations of the forthcoming summit as global politics is mired in complexity," he said writing for the Gateway House. "BRICS may do better, strengthening cooperation among its own members and with its partners in Africa and elsewhere than pursue its ambition to change the world."

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