On Monday, when China and India stepped back from the brink after weeks of mounting tensions along a disputed Himalayan border, it was a stark reminder of a decades-old rivalry. Agreeing to “expeditious disengagement,” the two countries appeared to damp the flames they'd reignited in June, when Chinese forces attempted to extend a road in the contested Doklam Plateau.

Nevertheless, their tensions continue to play out far from their borders. Some 4,000 miles away, Indian soldiers of another sort are fighting back against a different Chinese road: the One Belt, One Road infrastructure initiative, Beijing’s $900 billion Silk Road for the 21st Century. OBOR made its Kenyan debut in June with the inauguration of a rail line from Nairobi to the coast, replacing the tracks laid by Indian servants under colonialism a century earlier. And on August 1, China formally opened a military base in Djibouti – its first in Africa – further intensifying an interest in East Africa that has made the region a playing field for Sino-Indian rivalries.

The soldiers on India's front lines in Kenya wear trim suits. Their battlefields are shopping malls and conference halls. In July, dozens came to Nairobi to present their products – industrial gears, embroidered textiles, sanitary pads, and motorcycle helmets – at the third annual “Made in Gujarat” expo, introducing Indian firms to African markets. Meanwhile, Chinese billionaire Jack Ma addressed a hall of Kenyan university students, part of a regional tour alongside 38 other Chinese tycoons.

India would appear to have the home advantage, given its proximity and long-standing trade with East Africa. “The Indian Ocean does not separate us,” Suchitra Durai, India’s high commissioner to Kenya, tells the crowd at the expo. “It connects us.”

Yet Indian merchants here face increasing competition, as China’s growing global ambitions bring decades-old tensions to a new frontier. Indian businesses are racing to keep up, as its historic ties to the region come face-to-face with strategic, state-backed campaigns for influence from Beijing.

Indian influence challenged

The Indian diaspora in Africa numbers in the low millions: some were brought by the British; others settled here centuries earlier as maritime merchants. The men here in Nairobi are but the latest iteration of that tradition, having traded dhowboats for direct flights. 

These Indian nationals began arriving in the 1990s when India liberalized its economy and opened its borders for business. African economies were ripe for investment, thanks to the end of the cold war – and corresponding financial support for the developing world.

Now, both the old-guard Indian community and new immigrants find themselves increasingly squeezed by Beijing’s long reach. “The impact has been less state versus state, but taking stabs at an ethnic niche Indians enjoyed in East Africa,” says Jatin Dua, an assistant professor at the University of Michigan who studies the region, says of growing Chinese influence.

The plucky Indians at the expo know they can't match China's deep pockets and immense state machinery. So they fight back where they can. “If you’re looking for quality, you go for Indian products,” Rudvik Sankhala, a carpentry tool salesman at the expo, says proudly. And in the past few years, men like Mr. Sankhala have also found the Indian government behind them, as it tries to reverse its waning influence, eying new political and economic opportunities.

“In many ways, India is playing catch up on a continent that it actually has historically had much longer and deeper roots on,” Dr. Dua says.


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