But a little known fact is that India helped China extend its diplomatic outreach in Africa some years ago.
This happened in the West African nation of Liberia at a time when India was not represented by an embassy in the country but by an honorary consul general, an Indian businessman.
According to former minister of state for external affairs Shashi Tharoor, the incident dates back to 2009. “The Chinese wanted to set up an embassy in Liberia. They did not know who to ask,” Tharoor recalled.
“I guess they did not want to ask the Americans” who had the largest diplomatic presence in Liberia, Tharoor said on the sidelines of a recent seminar on India-Africa relations.
“They (the Chinese) made their own enquiries and found that there was an Indian businessman, a wonderfully intrepid character, who had survived all the civil wars and been a great help to expatriates during the civil wars, he was the Indian honorary consul general in Liberia. This was the only other diplomatic presence (apart from the US) of any consequence” in the country, the former minister said.
“So they (Chinese) asked whether we can help them set it up and he (the honorary Indian consul general) asked our ministry (the ministry of external affairs) whether it was alright for him to do so and we said ‘yes, go ahead’.”
The then Chinese ambassador met Tharoor during his visit to Liberia in 2010 and thanked India for its help. “He was very grateful to India for its help,” the former minister said.
“Now of course, India has a diplomatic presence in Ivory Coast which looks after Liberia as well,” he said.
The former minister’s comments represent a different narrative to the one most usually heard and read about in which India and China are seen as competitors for resources and strategic mind space in Africa.
While India is trying to reclaim its lost influence on the continent, Indian officials say this is not linked to China’s relations with African countries. “China is an $11 trillion economy; we (India) are a $2 trillion economy. There is no comparison or competition here,” said one Indian diplomat, who did not wish to be named.
Once seen as a strong partner of African countries in trying to throw off the yoke of colonization, India saw its influence on the continent wane in the 1990s. A measure of the goodwill India had lost was when many African countries lined up in support behind Japan in the mid-1990s during a vote for a non-permanent seat in the UN Security Council. India lost the elections to Japan at that time.
Since then, India has been trying to regain lost ground in Africa, positioning itself as a partner of choice in areas such as healthcare, education and investment and trade.
India-Africa trade was almost $70 billion in 2014-15 and Indian investments into Africa in the past decade amounted to $30-35 billion.
These figures, however, pale in comparison with the continent’s trade and investment ties with China, which has built large infrastructure projects like roads, railways, airports and government buildings.
China has invested more than $180 billion in sub-Saharan Africa in areas ranging from energy to transportation during 2005-2015, according to a study by the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute, a think tank. China-Africa trade in 2014-15 alone was worth $200 billion.