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Asia-Africa Growth Corridor (AAGC) – An initiative strong enough to balance out the Maritime S

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Article No. 005/2018


The vision document of the Asia-Africa Growth Corridor (AAGC) was released in the 52nd annual meeting of the African Development Bank (AfDB) in May 2017. Announced in 2016, in a joint statement by Prime Ministers Narendra Modi and Shinzo Abe, of India and Japan respectively, the AAGC is a collaboration between India and Japan, to develop sustainable growth corridors from Asia to Africa, thus bringing about a convergence of their respective country’s rising interest and investment in Africa. While there may be multiple reasons for the initiative being undertaken by two important Asian powers- India and Japan- the one probable significance that has been picked up by other governments and foreign policy experts is the challenge that it represents to China’s 21st century Maritime Silk Road (MSR).The Maritime Silk Road project announced by Chinese President Xi Jinping in Indonesia in 2013, has been a major touchstone in regional politics in the last few years. It is this aspect of the AAGC that this article seeks to examine- the extent to which it poses a viable challenge to the Chinese MSR.

In what context is the AAGC being pitted as a counterbalance to the MSR?

The MSR is an initiative of gargantuan proportions with the envisaged route beginning from Eastern coast of China, crossing over to Africa through the Malacca straits, Bay of Bengal, and the Indian Ocean. From the Horn of Africa, the MSR crosses over to the Mediterranean Sea via the Red sea and from there joins the Silk Road Economic Belt, the land component of the Belt and Road initiative.

It is ambitious not only with regard to geographical extent, but also in terms of the regional co-operation that it envisages.

Speaking about the MSR initiative at the Asia-Pacific Economic Conference in 2014, Chinese President Xi Jinping said, “it should be a three-way combination of infrastructure, institutions and people-to-people exchanges and a five-way progress in policy communication, infrastructure connectivity, trade link, capital flow and understanding among peoples,”1.

This statement serves to illustrate the sweeping extent of the MSR initiative as an ambition of geo- political integration, and ostensibly, of domination as well. The statement brings forth China’s intent to go beyond just hard infrastructure economic investments in other countries, and develop, simultaneously, socio- cultural ties with the developing countries along the MSR, and develop its own brand of soft power.

However, the MSR is not an unexpected or abrupt policy initiative. Rather, it represents a systematization and channelization of expanding Chinese economic political clout in South-East Asia, South Asia, and Africa.

India and China have shared a strained relation since the second half of the 20th century, as a result of border disputes and race to secure international standing and prestige. Territorial and political rivalry has only intensified in the recent years with heavy Chinese investment in countries neighbouring India, providing a potentially more lucrative partner to countries that have traditionally looked to India. A case in point is Sri Lanka. The recently concluded Hambantota deal is merely a culmination of China’s economic investments and loans given to South Asian countries, exceeding even India’s share in certain regions. Coupled with this is increasing Chinese activity in the Indian Ocean Region, which includes live fire drills in the Indian Ocean, Chinese submarines being deployed in the Indian Ocean and patrolling activities by the Chinese navy in the IOR.

Sino-Japanese relations too have been tensed in the post World War II scenario, being bolstered in recent times with increasingly nationalist narratives within the two countries. Thus, the two have been engaged in a game of emerging as a regional heavy weight. The two have also been engaged in a territorial dispute over a string of tiny islands in the East China Sea called Senkaku and Diaoyu in Japan and China respectively. In this context, the consolidation of Chinese power that is signalled by the MSR, has ruffled Japan.

It is in this context of rapid growth in Chinese presence in Asia and Africa, that the AAGC is being perceived by scholars as a counterbalance to the MSR. This is an anticipated response, as AAGC is the first policy undertaken at a bilateral level by India and Japan, which is systematic and coherent enough to be expected to balance the Chinese MSR.

Before evaluating if AAGC poses an adequate response to challenge the MSR, it is worthwhile to examine briefly, the nature of interactions that the two countries involved in the initiative- India, and Japan-  have enjoyed with Africa traditionally, and even amongst themselves.

Interactions over time

The AAGC is the culmination of past few years’ growing co-operation and partnership between India and Japan. Both these countries have a long- standing relationship with Africa; India more so than Japan.

India’s interactions with Africa can be traced as far back as the 1st century C.E. Its ties with Africa are strengthened by cultural, social, and historical experiences. The presence of a sizeable Indian diaspora in Africa,is another factor that bolsters the relation even today. Economically, the relations between India and Africa have grown substantially. Total trade between India and Africa, in the last decade from 2005-06 to 2015- 16, has increased almost five-fold to US$ 52 billion2. The growth in Indian FDI stock in Africa has, however, not been much. It stood at US $15 billion in 2014, up from US $12 billion in 20093. The growing importance accorded to Africa by India was manifested in the India- Africa Forum Summit in 2015, when all African states were invited to participate in the summit, as opposed to the traditional format where the African Union decided which 14 countries would get to participate in the summit4. At this summit Prime Minister Modi, admitting that India’s involvement in Africa has become sluggish over the years, promised concessional credit of $10 billion over the next five years. He also offered a grant assistance of $600 million5. As of 2015, India has provided Africa with $7.4 billion in soft loans and $1.2 billion in aid, since the first India-Africa Forum Summit (IAFS) in 20086.

Indian involvement in Africa has always been based on a consultative process. For instance, in 2015 before the IAFS, the AU adopted two key policies. The first was, Agenda 2063, a vision to rejuvenate the continent by eradicating poverty, creating jobs, skill, and literacy enhancement and ending conflicts. Africa Integrated Maritime Strategy (AIMS) was the second policy, aimed at developing a thriving maritime economy and using oceanic resources in a more sustainable fashion.

Recognizing this, the IAFS 2015, too, centred its bilateral commitments along these concerns, viz, energy access, Blue economy, sustainable development, peace and security and agricultural growth.

Thus, African perception of Indian investment has been largely positive, even though the magnitude of investment has been much below that of China and the United States. Another factor responsible for this has been the image of India as a genuine functioning democracy that has emerged from the same colonial experiences of Africa.

The second driving force of AAGC, i.e., Japan’s interest in Africa began with Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD) in 1993, when the western interest in Africa was distracted, as a result of engagements in East Europe in the aftermath of Cold war. The TICAD while being led by Japan, is also held in consonance with United Nations, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the World Bank and the African Union Commission (AUC). Japan’s overall direct investment in Africa totalled $1.24 billion in 2015, marginally below the US $ 1.5 billion, in 20147. In comparison to the Chinese investment figures, these investment figures are very meagre. The amount of Japanese- African trade, in 2015, stood at US $ 24 billion, again a meagre sum compared to the Sino- African trade figures8.

There seems to be renewal of interest of Japan in Africa in the last two or three years with the rise of Chinese investment in Africa. This is exemplified by the conduct of the 6th TICAD in Kenya in 2016, signalling the importance of Africa to Japan. Furthermore, the multilateral focus of Japanese involvement is stressed through the TICAD, to draw contrast with Forum on China- Africa Co-operation (FOCAC). The involvement of Japan in Africa is mostly centred around capacity development, research, and development assistance. Nevertheless now Japan is taking a more proactive approach to investment in Africa, as Chinese goods threaten to drive out Japanese ones which once dominated the market9.

Both India and Japan have been developing a close partnership between each other since 2000, as per what was hailed as a ‘global partnership’10. Initially, being limited to coast guard exercises and preliminary defence exchanges, the partnership provided clearer context and objectives from 2006. Off late, these two countries have been pushed closer together in their partnership, being driven by concerns of the rise of China, with which both countries have territorial and political disputes. Against this backdrop, the AAGC represents a complementary partnership between India and Japan, resulting from a convergence of their ‘Act East’ and ‘Expanded Partnership for Quality Infrastructure’ policies, respectively. Japan brings to the table its technological expertise and qualitative superiority, while India, brings with it centuries old interaction and trade relations with Africa.

However, India and Japan, through the AAGC, have to contend with a much superior rival in terms of economic relations with Africa, in China.

Chinese economic involvement in Africa, beginning in the years soon after the reform of the Chinese economy in the 1970s, rose multi-fold at the turn of the 21st century, as a consequence of China’s ‘Going Out’ policy. This economic involvement takes three main forms- trade, development cooperation and FDI that is primarily focused on infrastructure projects. On all three counts, China’s presence is looming and poised to replace the traditional Western monopoly. China as of 2015, emerged as the largest trading partner of Africa displacing USA and UK, the traditional powers. The magnitude of Chinese trade with Africa can be gleaned from the figure. The growth rate of Chinese FDI in Africa has been consistently high since 2000. In the decade between 2004 and 2014, Chinese FDI grew from $ US 1 billion to $ US 49 billion11. At this rate, China will be Africa’s primary source of FDI. In addition to this, Chinese economic presence in Africa also includes loans and aid, which in 2015 stood at $ US 12 billion and $ US 6 billion, respectively12.

This data demonstrates the substantial and widespread presence of China in Africa. It provides a firm and solid base upon which to base its African leg of the MSR. This sets the context to the magnitude of the challenge that AAGC is to encounter and provide an alternative to.

AAGC vs MSR- Which way do the scales tip?

Comparisons between the AAGC and the MSR have only been natural and anticipated as both initiativeshave a focus on Africa and are concentrated on developing a maritime corridor. But, it has to be noted that the business models of India and China in Africa have significant differences. However, there are some evident overlaps in their stated goals and objectives, that become apparent through a cursory glance at their respective Vision Documents.

The AAGC seeks to create a “free and open Indo-Pacific region”13. The stated objective is to rediscover ancient sea-routes and creating new sea corridors that will link the African continent with India and countries in South & South-East Asia. The Corridor will focus on, according to the vision document, the development of institutional, industrial and infrastructure capacity in Africa. The MSR too seeks to develop sustainable patterns of growth based on collaboration and consultation with the countries that are covered under the initiative.

The AAGC further aims to enhance the skills, Research and Development capacity in Africa, enhance the people to people partnership between Asia and Africa, develop quality infrastructure and establish co-operation and development projects with Africa. On the other hand, MSR’s functioning is to be governed by market principles, with state initiatives and partnerships in ensuring maritime security, securing maritime connectivity and participation across nations, and establishing fora for ideating appropriate growth models and formula. The Vision document of MSR also places emphasis on garnering public support for the growing linkages between the countries along the MSR.

Both initiatives place emphasis on taking into consideration and incorporating into their action plan the priorities and needs of host/ recipient countries. Noticeably, there are considerable similarities between the initiatives of these three Asian powers.

Beyond the similarities in the stated objectives, the article seeks to evaluate the two initiatives in relation to each other across 4 parameters- Vision, Approach, Financial viability, and People’s perception.


The two initiatives, while sharing objectives and goals, differ significantly in their scale, scope, and geographical extent. While MSR has global ambitions, as implied by the routes that the initiative encompasses, which are stated in its vision document, the scope of AAGC is limited to Africa. The white paper on MSR envisages three maritime routes under MSR, viz.-

  1. China-Indian Ocean-Africa- Mediterranean Sea Blue Economic Passage

  2. The blue economic passage of China-Oceania-South Pacific travelling southward from the South China Sea into the Pacific Ocean

  3. A blue economic passage to Europe via the Arctic Ocean.

The MSR lacks a structured framework and a timeline for the completion of the projects that would be needed for the initiative to be successful, at least one that is publicly available. Similar is the case with AAGC, which released its Vision document only in 2017and is yet to formulate a framework of operation.

While the MSR offers an official roadmap, stating the principles and aims of the initiative, as released by the NDRC, there is no conclusive structure of the initiative. While there are utopian goals, there is an absence of an implementation scheme and an evaluation standard, against which the success of the programme can be measured. The merit of the initiative seems to lie in the strategic challenge that it poses to other regional powers and the United States, and in signalling the capabilities and ambitions of China.

That being said, the incredulity that this grand scheme evokes, abates to a considerable extent when the larger pattern of Chinese economic investments in South, South-East Asia and Africa comes into view. The white paper on MSR makes an assured reference to the infrastructure projects that have already been completed so far, or are work in progress, which serve to satisfy the infrastructure requirement of MSR. This includes the naval base that has recently been established at Djibouti, the Hambantota port in Sri Lanka, the Colombo port city project which has been revived, the Malacca Industrial Park in Malaysia, and the Piraeus port in Greece. In addition to this are the host of infrastructure projects that have been completed in Africa, which despite being in the interiors of the continent, play an important role in the transportation of goods and commodities to the port cities. Cases in point include, the railway linking Ethiopia and Djibouti and the railway between Mombasa and Nairobi in Kenya. As per the official website for the BRI, the Chinese government has concluded 16 FTAs, at the end of 2017, thus ‘benefitting’ 24 countries.

Thus, while there is no official plan that has been laid out, the infrastructure projects developed by China in Asia and Africa, are in a position to be roped in within the ambit of MSR. It appears as if the MSR lends a coherent ideology to the extant large- scale infrastructure projects undertaken by China.

However, the systematic pursuit of the initiative is not without its problems. Any step to establish the connectivity that forms the bedrock of MSR, faces political problems. For instance, the establishment of China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), faces opposition from India on grounds of breach of sovereignty as the CPEC passes through Pakistan occupied Kashmir. Moreover, the development of MSR requires a smooth connectivity between the land routes and the maritime routes. For this to be achieved, considerable political manoeuvring will be required, especially in a poorly integrated region like South Asia.

On the other hand, in spite of both India and Japan having a history of capacity-building and social enhancement in Africa, the fact of the matter remains that the scale of such involvement is woefully short of Chinese economic investment in Africa. The Chinese have 66 FDI projects in Africa as of 2016, worth US $ 36.1 billion. In contrast, India has 18 FDI projects worth US $1.2 billion and Japan has 27 projects worth US $ 3.1 billion, as of 201614. This indicates the vast gap that exists between the scale of economic investment between the two competing power groups. Besides this, there exists a considerable gap in the trade and aid figures of China to Africa and that of India and Japan to Africa. Thus, in terms of established economic base from which to launch these two programmes, China definitely seems better and more comfortably positioned. Nonetheless as the AAGC has only recently been launched, there is scope for India and Japan to catch up with the level of Chinese investment.

Additionally, an aspect where India is better endowed than China with respect to Africa, is the soft power and largely favourable perception among Africans, that gives India, and consequently, the AAGC an edge over the Chinese. The delimitation of geographical area of focus, also makes co- ordination and co-operation among the stakeholders a smoother process contrary to the predicament under MSR.

Despite this comparative advantage, it has to be noted that, AAGC remains at a nascent stage, where the requisite research needed to implement the initiative, is yet to be drawn out. The initiative is yet to step out of the stage of drawing up a road map. Hence, it is too early to say if this theoretical advantage bears any practical fruits.


Another point of contrast between the two initiatives which is easily discernible is the approach that each one has taken to achieving their stated goals and objectives. The MSR is a state-driven programme, with contracts for infrastructure projects being taken up by State owned enterprises, while the AAGC has been envisaged as being led by private enterprises, which are ‘fine-tuned’ to the development needs and priorities of the African countries.

On this note, it has been hailed as distinctive from MSR, for being a consultative initiative15. Unlike the MSR, where the Chinese are forging relations with other countries and investing in them, in pursuit of its indigenously devised plan/ scheme, the AAGC, seeks to develop growth patterns that is based on the requirements and priorities of the host countries of Africa.

It remains to be seen if AAGC’s rather more consultative framework contributes to a healthier and more productive relationship or conversely fails to deliver tangible and assessable results. For, while a model based on deliberation and private sector may appear to be an ideal one, it may be the state- driven MSR that actually furnishes results that tick and hold sway over public and international perception.

While the Indian approach can be claimed to be ‘liberal’ from this perspective, Chinese may consider their involvement to be liberal, as their investment comes free of any conditionalities with regard to their governance standards and human rights track record.

Both initiatives place emphasis on the people to people bonds between those of their countries with that of Africa. China has been setting up several culture centres across Africa, providing scholarships to African students to study in Chinese universities, setting up training centres for skill transfer and specifically, with regard to MSR, aims to promote the Chinese Matsu folk culture as part of a larger initiative to promote the culture of the cities that the MSR covers16. Despite these initiatives, Chinese investments are perceived to be what has come to be termed, ‘cheque- book diplomacy’17. India and AAGC are free of this label thus far and their investments have the capacity to capitalize on this relation. The perception of India as a developing country that is founded on democratic principles, renders it with a legitimacy that the Chinese initiative lacks.

Transparency is another concern that emerges when the initiative is Chinese- led. China is not a part of Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), and hence is not beholden to follow its rules and standards. As a result of this, the nature of Chinese investment is not clear, especially in Africa, where the lines between development assistance, loans and aid are blurred. The Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) website does not specify the quantum of FDI outflow to Africa. The only source that is available under the circumstances are the private firms that carry out independent research in the region. Although a separate website has been set up by the Chinese, dedicated to the Belt and Road Initiative, specific details about developments and programmes is hard to glean. It remains to be seen if a private- sector driven involvement by India and Japan serves this goal of transparency. In this respect, it is encouraging to note that in a study conducted by Transparency International in 2016, Indian enterprises received a score of 5.80 out of 10 and thus ranked first amongst all the BRICS nations, while China stood last with a score of 1.6 out of 1018.

Hence, on this count of approach, the verdict on whether AAGC is an effective response to the MSR, will have to wait for the actual implementation of the programme. It is yet to be seen, how the initiative pans out in the continent.

Financial viability

The MSR is a largely state- funded initiative, with the role of private sector being limited to operations once the requisite infrastructure is set up. In 2014, China established the $ 40 billion ‘Silk Road Fund’, a corpus meant to finance the infrastructure construction of MSR19. In addition, China led the foundation of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank in 2015, in which has the largest stake, to invest in the MSR projects, though its activities are not limited to that. In 2015, there was an infusion of funds to the tune of $ 93 billion into the China Development Bank and the Chinese Exim Bank by China’s State Administration of Foreign Exchange (SAFE)20. The China daily reports that such an infusion of foreign reserves will help support the Belt and Road Initiative financially, among other development projects21. According to official Chinese media, the China Exim Bank alone funded more than 1,000 MSRI and SREB-related projects in 2015 in sectors such as electricity, resources, and transportation22. This is in spite of the repeated assertion and emphasis on the initiative being based on the market forces, in the 2015 vision document of the BRI. From this, it is evident that China has taken considerable number of measures to finance its initiative.

On the contrary, the AAGC has been stated to be an enterprise that is to be led and financed by private companies to a significant extent. This is in line with the current status quo, where much of the Indian investment in Africa is by a few Private enterprises. Japan and India are initiating investments worth $ 30 billion and $10 billion each respectively23. The actual investment figures are expected to go higher with other institutions contributing. But beyond this, no further data for sources of funding of AAGC are available, considering that the initiative has only just been launched.

Hence, at this point, the MSR seems to have a financial plan up its sleeve, while the AAGC is yet to formulate one.

As conjecture, a model driven by private enterprises may prove advantageous in so far as the economic and political independence of the recipient country is concerned. Investment by private actors lessens the risk of a country being beholden to the source country and prevents any unpropitious deals such as the Hambantota port deal.

People’s perception

A discussion on the initiatives by themselves will be incomplete without taking into consideration the response of the people whom these programmes are ultimately going to impact- the Africans.

The African reception of Chinese investment has been favourable and welcoming, at least from the government side. The response of the people has been rather mixed. The broad strokes of public opinion have been in favour, considering the severe dearth of infrastructure in the continent. In a survey conducted by Afrobarometer, a research network operating in Africa, across 36 countries, 63% of the respondents thought that Chinese socio- economic influence in their countries had a positive effect24.  But, there most certainly is a disgruntled section of the population that believes that Chinese economic relation in Africa is unequal, as most of the skilled jobs are given to the Chinese, while the locals are employed in unskilled labour at minimal wages. Some workers have also expressed concern that the Chinese work ethic could reduce the demand for local labour25. Rapid development of Chinese infrastructure projects has also raised concerns over the damage that it is causing to the environment. Alarms raised by the West calling Chinese investment, loans, and aid to Africa ‘neo- colonialism’, has struck a chord with a few African sections as well, albeit a very small percentage.

The goals and projects that the MSR proposes are in line with the larger ambitions and requirements of African nations for infrastructure, sustainable growth, and the plan to develop a ‘Blue economy’, as envisaged by AIMS. Hence, the MSR initiative is received positively by them.

Indian presence is mostly considered to be benign and in consonance with this, the first response to the AAGC is also positive. Akinwumi Adesina, President of the African Development Bank, noted, at the annual meeting of the AfDB in 2017, that, “This cooperation is both a mutual privilege and priority” and that it is a “pleasure to partner with such an inveterate and committed investor in Africa.”26

It is this perception that India must make optimum use of, to pose an effective challenge to the MSR. It needs to be able to effectively deploy its historical and traditional linkages to create legitimacy for the AAGC.

African response to Japanese presence was extremely positive a decade ago, when Japan was the largest Asian investor in Africa. But since then, as Japanese economic involvement slipped and got supplanted by China gradually, African response to Japan too has turned rather lukewarm. The resurgence of interest in Africa since 2015 onwards, is yet to restore African enthusiasm in Japanese investments, with focus having decidedly shifted to China.


When both initiatives are weighed against each other, the Chinese pattern of investment and economic diplomacy seems to be at present paramount. Irrespective of the pitfalls in the MSR identified in this article, the fact remains that China is currently better positioned to undertake the implementation of its grand scheme, both politically and financially. China is currently also enjoying a momentum in terms of co-operation from other developing countries in Asia and Africa. It is receiving due deference as the regional super power that it has turned out to be. Perception among the beneficiaries of Chinese economic diplomacy is also rather favourable.

For AAGC to create its own niche and establish its own base in Africa vis-à-vis China’s MSR, India and Japan will have to develop a triangular institutional collaboration, keeping Africa in loop. This could be achieved by forming a new platform or merging the existing ones that India and Japan maintain separately with Africa- the IAFS and the TICAD. For the AAGC to be truly consultative as its Vision document states, this would be an essential step.

Africa has found a lucrative opportunity in the MSR and the AAGC, with both initiatives proposing measures that benefit the continent. In light of the renewed attention that Africa has been receiving from the Asian countries, countries of the continent are in a position to choose as per their convenience and advantage. In such a scenario, for the AAGC to thrive, it needs to have a competitive advantage over MSR.

It can attempt to achieve this by setting up a mechanism by means of which a common institution can monitor the timely completion of projects and also ensure quality control, an area which has been a Chinese weakness. There is a need to accompany the private- sector led growth, with diplomatic engagement of governments of African countries, to signify Indian and Japanese commitment. This engagement, moreover needs to be consistent. Prime Minister Modi and Prime Minister Abe’s visit to Africa in 2016 and 2014, respectively needs to be followed up with further high- level visits to ensure sustained relations.

Hence, for AAGC to compete and co- exist with a mammoth initiative like the MSR, there is need for India to capitalize on its traditional edge and for Japan to provide quality infrastructure to counter Chinese influence. The two countries enjoy considerable social momentum among the African nations and this must be put to optimal use to bear results. But a proper assessment can only be made in the years to come. Until then, Chinese growth seems unrestricted. The practicality of AAGC is yet to be manifest.


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(Retika V. is an Intern, C3S and Member, Young Minds of C3S. She is pursuing her second year of B.A programme at Lady Sri Ram College for Women, Delhi University. She has carried out research on identified issues on China under the guidance of the members of C3S. The views expressed in this article however are of the author.)

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