Tokyo Report

What Does Japan See in Zimbabwe?

The strategic rationale behind Tokyo’s outreach to Harare.

What Does Japan See in Zimbabwe?

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe in 2015

Credit: Russian Presidential Press and Information Office

On June 14, 2016, Zimbabwe and Japan signed a major automobile industry trade deal to ship 10,000 Japanese tractors to Harare and train 40 Zimbabweans in Japanese automobile manufacturing techniques. This deal mirrors similar contracts signed by China, Zimbabwe’s principal Asian partner, and reaffirms Japan’s desire to compete with China for economic influence in sub-Saharan Africa.

Japan’s investment in Zimbabwe’s automobile industry is the latest step towards stronger ties between Tokyo and Harare. In late March, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe signed a 600 million yen ($5.8 million) deal to finance road construction on Zimbabwe’s resource-rich north-south corridor. Japanese Emperor Akihito also welcomed Zimbabwe’s president and first lady to Tokyo, a move that symbolized the growth in Zimbabwe-Japan cooperation.

Even though Japan risks criticism from Western powers who have isolated the Mugabe regime with crippling sanctions, Abe’s outreach to Zimbabwe strategically benefits Japan in two main ways. First, Abe can use a closer partnership with Zimbabwe as a springboard for expanding Japan’s network of allies in sub-Saharan Africa. As an added bonus, by providing Zimbabwe with much-needed foreign capital, Tokyo can gain economic leverage over one of Beijing’s closest African allies. Second, Zimbabwe is a long-standing ally of North Korea. Closer Harare-Tokyo ties could convince Mugabe to break off relations with Pyongyang, a move that would further isolate Kim Jong-un’s increasingly belligerent regime.

The Benefits of Closer Japan-Zimbabwe Linkages

Abe’s diplomatic outreach to Zimbabwe benefits Japan’s economy and increases Tokyo’s geopolitical influence in three main ways.

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First, despite widespread international criticisms of Robert Mugabe’s authoritarian policies and handling of Zimbabwe’s hyperinflation crisis, Mugabe is respected by many African leaders for his role in liberating Zimbabwe from white minority rule in 1980. Abe’s praise of Mugabe as an “iconic” leader and as the “most revered patriarch of Africa” in late March, was a veiled appeal to African leaders who admire Mugabe for his steadfast resistance to Western neo-colonialism.

Abe has used this good will to curry Mugabe’s support for Japan’s UN reform agenda. During his General Assembly speech last year, Mugabe expressed support for African representation in the UN Security Council. As Mugabe was the chairman of the African Union until January 2016, Japanese policymakers have expressed optimism that Mugabe’s solidarity could inspire other African countries to back Japan’s plan to overhaul the UN Security Council.

Second, Japan is strongly positioned to re-establish trade linkages with Zimbabwe, as it did not follow the West in imposing sanctions on Zimbabwe for Mugabe’s forcible land seizures in 2000. Those sanctions isolated Mugabe diplomatically and economically from the West, forcing Zimbabwe to adopt an Asia-Pacific centered “Look East” foreign policy targeting Chinese foreign investment.

While Japanese companies withdrew in response to rapidly worsening economic conditions in Zimbabwe in the early 2000s, the absence of legal barriers to trade has fueled a revival of Japanese investment under Abe. Major acquisitions like Kansai Paint’s purchase of Zimbabwe’s largest paint company in 2013 have convinced some Japanese business leaders that conditions for investment in Zimbabwe are gradually improving. Abe’s bilateral meetings with Mugabe at the 2013 Tokyo International Conference for Africa’s Development (TICAD) summit, and 2015 UN disaster conference based in Japan have also been helpful in streamlining the inflow of Japanese capital to Zimbabwe.

Mugabe has responded positively to Japan’s diplomatic overtures, and has urged Abe to expand Japan’s investment in Zimbabwe’s gold, platinum, and nickel industries. As Zimbabwe remains a mineral resource-rich country, closer Japanese links to Zimbabwe will allow Tokyo to profit considerably should Zimbabwe’s economy recover.

Third, increased Japanese development assistance could allow Tokyo to challenge China’s dominance over the process of rebuilding Zimbabwe’s economy. China has invested extensively in improving the efficiency of Zimbabwean agriculture to alleviate food shortages. In response to China’s efforts, Abe has announced two major aid pledges to Zimbabwe over the past year. These aid donations strive to increase food production in areas surrounding the north-south corridor infrastructure projects. Through expanded development assistance, Japan can revive the trust and camaraderie that characterized Tokyo’s investments in Zimbabwe during the 1980s, and prove its reliability as an investment provider to other Sub-Saharan African states seeking foreign capital.

How Closer Japan-Zimbabwe Ties Can Help Contain North Korea

Deepening ties between Japan and Zimbabwe could also impact security in the Korean peninsula, as Zimbabwe has historically been one of North Korea’s closest international allies. Mugabe visited North Korea in 1980 shortly after his ascension as prime minister and became an admirer of Kim Il-sung’s cult of personality. Upon his return to Harare, Mugabe distributed Juche: The Speeches and Writings of Kim Il-Sung to Zimbabwean officials and praised the North Korean regime as a model for Zimbabwe’s state-building efforts. Mugabe subsequently hired North Korean military advisers to assist his repression of the Ndebele community from 1983-1987, a crackdown which resulted in at least 20,000 casualties.

While the extent of Zimbabwe’s trade linkages with North Korea is unknown, there is compelling evidence of bilateral cooperation between Mugabe and Kim Jong-un. In 2013, Mugabe agreed to an arms-for-uranium pact with North Korea. This pact allowed the DPRK to send scientists to Zimbabwe’s uranium-rich Kanyema dirstict, and access the yellowcake uranium required for nuclear weapons development. In exchange, Zimbabwe received unspecified quantities of arms and ammunition from Pyongyang.

Japan’s diplomatic overtures toward Zimbabwe occur at a time when North Korea’s long-standing African alliances are being challenged by South Korean President Park Geun-hye’s recent sub-Saharan African tour and offers of investment. The defection of Uganda from Pyongyang’s security umbrella after Park’s visit demonstrated to Japanese policymakers that sustained diplomatic outreach can convince even North Korea’s strongest allies to comply with international sanctions.

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Japan’s outreach to Zimbabwe has already made some progress in rupturing the Harare-Pyongyang alliance. While Mugabe’s March 29 statement on Zimbabwe-North Korea relations did not rule out re-establishing diplomatic ties with Kim Jong-un’s regime, the Zimbabwean president admitted that his country had “lost connection with North Korea.”

Symbolic linkages between North Korea and Zimbabwe remain intact, due to Mugabe’s stridently anti-Western foreign policy identity. The DPRK football team trained in Zimbabwe before the 2010 World Cup and Mugabe’s 90th birthday statue, worth $5 million, was constructed by North Korean sculptors. But if Abe can convince Mugabe of Japan’s reliability as a strategic partner at a time when Zimbabwe is suffering from acute international isolation, he might be able to curb future Harare-Pyongyang economic and military cooperation.

Abe’s diplomatic outreach to Zimbabwe is a vital component of Tokyo’s alliance-building strategy in Africa. It is also closely intertwined with Japan’s desire to contain China and North Korea. As Mugabe is 92 years old and has not designated a successor, the long-term future of the Harare-Tokyo partnership remains uncertain. But based on Abe’s recent rhetoric and investment pledges, ties between Japan and Zimbabwe are likely to continue to strengthen for the foreseeable future.

Samuel Ramani is an MPhil student in Russian and East European Studies at St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford specializing in post-1991 Russian foreign policy. He is also a journalist who contributes regularly to the Huffington Post, Washington Post and Kyiv Post amongst other publications. He can be followed on Facebook at Samuel Ramani and on Twitter at samramani2.