Indo-African relations are growing closer and closer, a development that rests to a great extent on an energetic military diplomacy. Between March 21 and 29 of this year, India organized AFINDEX 2023, a joint Indo-African training exercise that included 24 African countries and a sequel to the first AFINDEX held in 2019. These efforts are expected to lead to stronger political partnerships with African countries, broader security cooperation, a stronger military presence, increased weapons purchases and an attempt to counterbalance the Chinese maritime presence. But they face challenges as well: the growing Chinese economic and military presence, regional opposition to New Delhi, and the difficulty of funding maritime expansion.
India’s recent military maneuverings suggest that it is looking to adopt a more active military diplomacy in Africa. There are various aspects to this.
1. New Delhi has expanded its security and military cooperation with African countries. While India has shown interest in strengthening cooperation with Africa in all fields – political, economic, military – it has given the military sphere particular attention. Initially, military cooperation was limited to joint patrols in African waters intended to guarantee the safety of Indian shipping and confront novel challenges in the western Indian Ocean, in particular piracy, drug smuggling, illegal migration and terrorism. At that point, Indian efforts were focused on establishing educational institutions in various countries, including the Naval War College in Nigeria, the Military Academy in Ethiopia, and the Air Forces Academy in Ghana. New Delhi also sent training teams to countries such as Botswana, Lesotho, Zambia, Uganda, Namibia, Tanzania, Mauritius and the Seychelles.
In recent years, however, Indo-African cooperation has expanded to include regular joint training exercises. The first AFINDEX field exercises were held in March 2019, and a second round took place in March 21-29, 2023.
2. India has been improving its relations with countries on the Indian Ocean. Indian military diplomacy has focused on countries that are rich in strategic and natural resources and which border on the Indian Ocean. 24 African countries participated in AFINDEX 2023, nine of them as core participants (Ethiopia, Kenya, Lesotho, Niger, the Seychelles, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe) and 12 as observers (Botswana, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Eswatini, Ghana, Malawi, Nigeria, the Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Senegal, Sudan, South Africa).
Some of these countries have substantial strategic resources – Niger (uranium), Sudan (oil), Nigeria (oil), Senegal (phosphate), Tanzania (natural gas), Zambia (cooper) – while others are strategically positioned along the coastline of the Indian Ocean (Kenya, the Seychelles, Tanzania, Lesotho, Zambia, Zimbabwe). Last August, for example, the Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh told his Tanzanian counterpart Stergomena Tax that India and Tanzania share the same "strategic space", and that his country considers Tanzania to be a major player in the western Indian Ocean.
Singh said that the region has strategic importance for India economically, since 60% of the country’s trade comes from that side of the Indian Ocean. He added that given the negative effects of Chinese support experienced by countries like Kenya and Tanzania and the strong reaction that this had caused, it was high time that India restored its old ties with the region. A November 2022 report by India Exim Bank, meanwhile, points to the major contribution made to maritime security by Indian cooperation with nine coastal countries: the Comoros, Kenya, Madagascar, Mauritius, Mozambique, the Seychelles, Somalia, South Africa and Tanzania.
3. India is institutionalizing military cooperation and defense partnerships in the region. On March 28-29, 2023, India held a ministerial conclave on Indo-African defense partnership, the capacity of Indian defense industry and its contributions to regional security. The conclave comes at a time when India is seeking to establish a permanent Indo-African ministerial council on defense in order to institutionalize security cooperation with its African partners. The aim is to identify opportunities for joint projects and investments in cybersecurity, maritime security and counterterrorism and to save on military equipment.
The Indian government has also suggested formalizing the India-Africa Defense Dialog held on October 18-22 last year on the sidelines of the DefExpo arms fair. At the same time, New Delhi has launched its SAGAR (Security and Growth for All in the Region) initiative, the Ministry of External Affairs has established a new department dedicated to security and development in the Indian Ocean region, and the Indian Navy has announced its total commitment to naval security all along the eastern coast of Africa.
There are several drivers that explain India’s growing military diplomacy along the African coast.
1. New Delhi wants to increase its military presence on the African coast. India’s military diplomacy forms part of a broader strategy to increase its presence in the Indian Ocean as a whole, particularly along the East African coastline. Despite its historic focus on nearby states and islands such as Sri Lanka and the Maldives (in the eastern Indian Ocean), it has recently been making greater efforts to increase its military presence in all countries overlooking the Ocean, countries such as Tanzania, Mozambique, Mauritius and the Seychelles. It has set up an Information Fusion Center for the Indian Ocean Region (IFC-IOR) in Gurgaon and a Regional Coordination Operations Center (RCOC) in the Seychelles. Via Mauritius, it has access to eight Coastal Surveillance Radar (CSR) stations with a range of up to 50 km: five on Mauritius itself and one each on the islands of Rodriguez, St Brandon and Agaléga.
2. It wants to counterbalance the Chinese naval presence in Africa. Beijing has been trying to develop its network of logistical infrastructure, the "string of pearls." It has sought to build a series of naval bases around the Indian Ocean, allowing it to protect Chinese imports and shipping lanes and to project military power far beyond its coastline. This has set alarm bells ringing in New Delhi, which considers this region part of its backyard and worries about potential threats to its maritime trade. These anxieties are clearly reflected in the timing of the second round of AFINDEX on March 21-29 2023, only a short time after the joint exercises held by Russia, South Africa and China in South Africa (in the southern Indian Ocean).
These Chinese moves have thus encouraged New Delhi to increase its own activity in order to conclude agreements and deals that allow it to set up military bases in the region. Some reports indicate that it is looking to establish military bases in the Seychelles, in the north of the Mozambique Channel (which sits on a route taken by some 30% of all global oil trade), as well as in the Comoros and Madagascar, at a time when Beijing is offering significant incentives and investment in these countries’ infrastructure in exchange for the right to set up bases there.
3. It wants to sell Indian weapons to African countries. The second round of AFINDEX gave the Indian army a chance to show off its most cutting-edge equipment, including assault rifles, artillery shells, and new rocket models, at the heart of its defense ministry in Pune (western India). New Delhi hopes to more than double its arms exports (currently worth around $1.7 billion) to a value of $5 billion a year. Although its list of customers does include states such as Ethiopia, Mozambique, Mauritius and the Seychelles, less than 20% of the Indian defense industry’s sales go to African countries. Indian experts thus suggest that the current focus on raising exports to Africa will be driven by "defense" sales, including armored vehicles, radar systems and wireless and non-wireless communications devices.
A report published in 2022 by the Indian Exim Bank points to India’s emerging role as a major arms exporter to Africa. Between 2017 and 2021, Mauritius accounted for 6.6% of Indian arms exports to the continent, followed by Mozambique (5%) and the Seychelles (2.3%). The Indian Defense Ministry has also established cooperation frameworks with South Africa, Kenya, Tanzania, Mauritius, the Seychelles and Madagascar.
Nonetheless, India’s arms sales to Africa still pale in comparison to China’s. China is still the largest Asian arms exporter to Africa. Between 2010 and 2021, a total of $9.32 billion in arms were sold to the region, 22% of which came from China (around $2.04 billion). More than 60% of Chinese sales went to five countries: Tanzania (19.6%), Nigeria (13.5%), Sudan (12.6%), Cameroon (11.2%) and Zambia (6.22%). These countries also host some of the most significant Chinese investment and construction projects in the region, which is indicative of the growing ties between Beijing, economic interests and security concerns.
India’s energetic military diplomacy faces growing political, military and economic challenges.
1. The Chinese military and economic presence is expanding. China has emerged as Africa’s biggest economic partner, with the value of bilateral trade in 2022 reaching $254 billion – a 35% increase on 2020. Beijing has pumped billions of dollars into the region, building roads, bridges and power stations in exchange for access to markets and resources in Africa. The Indian Foreign Minister, S. Jaishankar, told the seventh CII-EXIM conference on Indo-African development partnerships that Indian trade with Africa had risen to around $89.5 billion in 2022, up from $56 billion in 2021, and that total Indian investment in the continent between 1996 and 2021 added up to $73.9 billion. The Chinese presence thus poses a major challenge to Indian military diplomacy, limiting New Delhi’s ability to play a political role in the region.
This is especially true given the likelihood of more intense Sino-Indian competition in the future. For example, China has military attachés in most of its deputations in African countries, while India’s closest military attaché is stationed in South Africa, and there is no formal presence in Madagascar. Despite the generous contributions to food and medical aid made by the Indian navy during the coronavirus pandemic, the country’s involvement in development in the region remains very modest when compared to China’s.
2. India’s maneuvering has met with some serious opposition. India’s military diplomacy faces political challenges in some African countries. The Mauritian opposition is hostile to the plan to build a military base there and very critical of the March 2015 agreement that provides for the construction of Indian infrastructure in Agaléga. Indian policy has proven very controversial, with many opposition politicians anxious that India is undermining Mauritian sovereignty by transforming the islands into military bases. And New Delhi has faced similar political problems in the Seychelles, where in 2018 opposition forces rejected the government’s ratification of a security agreement signed in 2015.
3. India may struggle to fund its maritime expansion. Many reports attest to the relative modesty of Indian naval budgets when compared to China. The numbers for 2017-2018 suggest that only 15% of total Indian military spending goes to the navy, while the USA spends around 30% and Australia and Japan 25% and 23% respectively. China, meanwhile, spends three times what India spends on its armed forces.
This shortfall in military spending comes at a time when India has recognized the need to increase its naval capabilities and develop its fleet, which it plans to expand to 200 ships by 2027. In 2017-2018, the Indian navy asked the government for $5.2 billion, but received only $2.9 billion. This means that the navy can barely cover its planned expenses, limiting its ability to establish a bigger footprint and counterbalance the Chinese presence in the western Indian Ocean.
New Delhi is trying to strengthen its military and security partnerships with Indian countries and establish a military presence on the African continent as part of its competition with China. The Chinese challenge in the western Indian Ocean and along the east coast of Africa is likely to push India to strengthen its relations with global powers such as the USA and France. India has been a consistent participant in the joint military and naval training exercises that the US Navy has held with various African countries. It has also sought to coordinate its regional efforts with France, a country that maintains military bases in countries like Mauritius. France, the USA and India all recognize the need to cooperate more closely on political and military issues in order to combat Chinese influence in the region.