Bringing Africa into the Indo-Pacific
By Hamish Sneyd, Research Intern
The Indo-Pacific concept is characterised by the confluence of the Indian and the Pacific Oceans. While much of Australia’s foreign policy has focused on its eastern neighbours in the Pacific, less attention has been paid to the Indian Ocean countries of Africa. As Australia seeks to boost its strategic engagement in the region, policy makers should extend their approach to recognise the geostrategic importance of Africa.
Africa carries major significance to the Indo-Pacific. African states share challenges with established Indo-Pacific players including maritime security, geostrategic competition, and climate change. Many Indo-Pacific states have signalled a stronger embrace of Africa’s eastern and small island littoral states, yet more must be done to ensure effective responses to mutual areas of concern. Australia should play a larger role in this evolving process.
Africa’s Indo-Pacific intersections
The activities conducted throughout Africa and the Indo-Pacific’s vast ocean highways can present huge challenges to maritime security and the maintenance of a rules-based international order. Eastern Africa has seen significant amounts of piracy and maritime transnational crime, particularly around the strategically important Horn of Africa. The Indo-Pacific has also become a hotspot for piracy in the Bay of Bengal and Strait of Malacca. Numerous states and regional bodies including ASEAN and the African Union have acknowledged the need to respond to these challenges.
Competition for geostrategic power and influence is also a shared challenge of African and Indo-Pacific states. A key domain this competition is playing out is in the provision of critical infrastructure. China has increased its presence in Africa through numerous Belt and Road Initiative projects, triggering concern amongst liberal democracies. Djibouti, for example, has become a target for new foreign military bases. Kenya, Tanzania, and Mozambique have also experienced a windfall of Chinese-funded investments in port infrastructure and critical mineral extraction.
Strategically motivated investments and poor governance standards from the likes of China and Russia have often resulted in projects that increase the power of autocratic governments and their elites. Similar dynamics are well-documented in the Indo-Pacific, including Sino-Indian competition for influence within Sri Lanka’s increasingly autocratic Rajapaksa regime, and China’s continued support for North Korea.
Climate change is also a joint Indo-Pacific-African concern. Increasing temperatures and extreme weather events are major threats to human security and economic development in Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia, in particular. Indo-Pacific and African states share the challenge of mitigating and adapting to the impacts of climate change. This will require increases in renewable energy generation, sustainable agricultural practices, and regional security approaches that account for major migration waves and other non-traditional security challenges. Dependence on fossil fuel energy for economic development is a significant hindrance to achieving broad consensus on climate action in both regions.
Embracing Africa’s Indo-Pacific relevance
Africa-Indo-Pacific engagement on shared interests remains underdeveloped. Neither individual African countries nor the African Union (AU) have developed an Indo-Pacific strategy or demonstrated an interest in intra-regional dialogues. China’s strong presence in Africa is one likely factor in this, given Beijing’s opposition to the Indo-Pacific concept. Nevertheless, Africa will continue to be a more significant player in world affairs due to its youthful population, abundance of natural resources, rapid economic diversification, and tremendous development potential.
There are at least signs of a growing embrace of Africa by some Indo-Pacific players. India and Japan, for example, have both included Africa in their Indo-Pacific definitions. India is already one of Africa’s largest trade and investment partners. It has engaged with the continent through avenues including the India-Africa Forum Summit. Japan’s seminal “Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy” incorporated East African and Indian Ocean littoral states from the outset. Japan engages with Africa through the Tokyo Conference on African Development (TICAD). Japan and India also collaborate on Africa’s Indo-Pacific inclusion through the Asia Africa Growth Corridor economic cooperation agreement. There is also growing recognition of Africa’s regional role in Europe – France’s Indo-Pacific strategy incorporates Africa, and it engages with the continent through the Indian Ocean Commission and the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA).
Australia’s Indo-Pacific interpretation, by contrast, stretches only as far as the eastern Indian Ocean. This is despite Australia already having promising links with Africa in peace and security, trade and investment, people-to-people connections, and critical minerals. Africa’s rapidly growing middle class and resultant shifts in continental food consumption trends present a tremendous opportunity to further diversify Australia’s economic links, particularly in the context of China’s continued trade coercion.
Australia should join its Indo-Pacific partners in formally recognising Africa’s economic dynamism and geostrategic importance. It should also step-up strategic engagement with the continent through platforms including IORA to reenergise the grouping.
Both India and Japan’s existing engagement could allow a cooperative maritime effort under instruments of the Quad and the shared vision of a “free, open, accessible, diverse, and thriving Indo-Pacific”. Australia should also encourage intra-regional dialogues with a focus on non-traditional security matters. It should support climate finance by supporting or emulating initiatives such as the AfricaGoGreen Fund, which seeks to decarbonise economies and accelerate the energy transition. Finally, Canberra should also contribute to the development of Africa’s food systems through research bodies such as the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research.
Australia and the US should officially include Africa’s eastern littoral and small island states in their respective Indo-Pacific visions and improve diplomatic efforts to encourage Africa’s Indo-Pacific engagement through a dialogue-centred approach.
Major players in the Indo-Pacific must actively contribute to meeting Africa’s broader development needs in alignment with the AU’s Agenda 2063. These combined efforts could generate lasting affinities and position Africa as a crucial Indo-Pacific actor.