In recent years, strategic focus has firmly been trained on the South China Sea. It is here that a rising China—and for some, an assertive one—had been pitted against several neighbours, many of them close allies of the United States, making claims and counter-claims on its islands and reefs in an attempt to establish influence over important sea lanes passing through the Asia-Pacific.
But, thousands of miles away, hectic activities are also on in the eastern seaboard of Africa along the Indian Ocean, where several regional players as well as global majors are jostling for space and influence in an area which China, say experts, is keen to turn into its main continental outpost for its One-Belt-One-Road (OBOR) activities. It has already made heavy investments in its attempt to link small towns in the remote hinterland to big cities of the coastal areas along its mega-Silk Route projects that criss-cross several countries.
Much of the activities are centered on the newly formed East African Community (EAC), projected to be ‘the most economically promising bloc of states in the continent’ with the ultimate goal of turning it into a federation. But even as experts are busy studying its actualisation and impact on Africa and beyond, the bloc has started attracting players from both neighbouring African countries as well as other bigger global players, including the US, the European Union and India, besides China. Each of these countries is now busy positioning themselves in a manner that would yield them the biggest benefits in the days to come.
Some experts, like Andrew Korybko, a keen observer of the region and author of the monograph, Hybrid Wars: The Indirect Adaptive Approach to Regime Change feel that the EAC could also turn into an object of ‘New Cold War’ rivalry between China and India. He argues, “the current economic data convincingly indicates that this is already gearing up to be the case”.
Besides, if the Chinese presence gets too uncomfortable for the US, it may even engineer a few indigenous conflicts in the region to destabilise and scuttle Beijing’s OBOR project, feels Korybko.
That prediction, of course, depends on how relations between the major global players play out in the coming days and also, crucially, on the relations among the nations in East Africa.
Moreover, whether or not it turns into another area of rivalry between China and India remains to be seen. But the fact that Delhi’s focus on this new bloc is increasingly getting sharper is becoming evident from its renewed engagement with the region. Vice President Hamid Ansari, while on a recent tour of East Africa’s ‘Great Lake Region’, pointed out that “the East African Community is taking shape as an economic and political community and many of our programmes and initiative in the region will no longer be purely bilateral but will have to be adapted to work for the entire community”.
Since its ascension to power in May 2014, the Narendra Modi government has been keen on deepening ties with Africa. The latest engagement to strengthen ties with EAC countries is part of that initiative.
It was way back in 1967 that three major East African countries—Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania—came together to form a trade bloc and take the first tentative steps towards an East African Community. But the effort did not go very far; after about a decade it broke up. A fresh attempt at a trade bloc was made in 2007, with the inclusion of Rwanda and Burundi. The EAC was formally launched in 2010. Six years later, the newest country in the continent, South Sudan, also applied and was granted membership.
Considering its goodwill and large diaspora in the region, besides the ancient links, India is confident of a reliable foothold in East Africa.
The attempt of EAC member countries is now to form a customs union, a free trade zone and a single currency area, and finally to turn it into a single federation. The EAC has come up with a common flag and a national anthem that is displayed and played at the EAC Summit. Ambitious talks are also on for a single passport for nationals of the member countries to allow both unfettered movement through the EAC and the permission to work and live in it.
Of the six members in the EAC, four countries—Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and South Sudan—are landlocked nations. Only Kenya and Tanzania, the two bigger countries and economies of the region, have access to the Indian Ocean. The smaller landlocked countries, keen as they are to get access to the sea that could expand their economic horizon beyond the region to the wider world, want an early realisation of the various proposals that would lead to the integration within the EAC.
Outside investors support this move, as they see the advantage of an integrated market and bureaucracy, rather than having to deal with individual countries with their own laws and jurisdictions. Kenya and Tanzania, the two coastal countries, too, want the expanded market of the EAC. But both want their own countries to be placed at the centre of the bloc in order to become the main hub of its economic and political activities in the near future. The East African Community, with a total population of over 170 million people, is an impressive market, has a sizeable labour force and economy, and could well turn out to be a key global player if everything goes according to plan and if all the players cooperate for their collective benefit.
But a further tussle is on between Kenya and Tanzania in pushing for their rival transport infrastructure projects—the northern corridor and the central corridor. The former, said to be more efficient, links Kenya’s bustling Mombasa port with the landlocked economies of Rwanda, Uganda, Burundi and South Sudan. The standard gauge railway is also said to be an important part of this in which Kampala, Uganda’s capital, plays the role of an important junction, as it then links the line to other remote areas in the hinterland.
Uganda, which discovered large deposit of oil some years back, was also supposed to link its pipeline to the Northern Corridor, thus making Kenya the main hub of the EAC and bolster growing economy. But last year, Kampala decided to opt for the Central Corridor that links its pipeline to Tanzania’s coastal port, Tanga, which can now be extended up to Dar-Es-Salam, already a bustling Tanzanian economic hub.
Predictably, Kampala’s decision disappointed Kenya, which was all set to strengthen its strategic partnership with Uganda. At the same time, it has elated the Tanzanian leadership in Dodoma. Once ambiguous about the viability of the EAC’s prospect, now they are keen to push the integration process through at the earliest. But questions are now being raised whether a hurting Nairobi will show as much interest in the integration as it had done in the past.
So how are the major international players responding to these developments and the brewing regional rivalry?
For China, which has made heavy investments in most major infrastructure projects in the region, the main objective is to see the early completion of the EAC’s integration. Most of the other western countries, particularly the US, that are wary about Beijing’s expanding influence here, are keeping a close watch on developments. But all are interested at the early emergence of the EAC as a cohesive economic and political entity.
And what are India’s plans for the EAC?
“We are keeping all our options open,” says a senior Indian diplomat, while pointing out that New Delhi is exploring various possibilities that would help it reach its own economic and strategic goals while also ensuring the growth of its African partners. With a sizeable Indian diaspora well entrenched in the economic and political establishment in the region, in addition to its long, historical ties with coastal African nations, India feels confident that it would be difficult for any outside power to dislodge it from this crucial part of the continent.
In addition, India has also been developing naval assets in the neighbouring island chains in the Indian Ocean to ensure that its interests in Africa are safeguarded.
In the coming days there could well be phases when a Sino-Indian rivalry for expansion of influence in East Africa could intensify. But it should not come as a surprise either if the Asian neighbours find new opportunities in this important part of Africa where they could cooperate for their mutual benefit. Common economic interests, we mustn’t forget, are the strongest glue that can bind nations.
By Pranay Sharma in Kampala