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Can Japan Challenge China in Africa?

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Tokyo Report

Can Japan Challenge China in Africa?

A recent meeting captures the ongoing rivalry between the two Asian giants playing out there.

Can Japan Challenge China in Africa?
Credit: Japan Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Japan’s pledge to increase development assistance to Africa will come as glad tidings to the continent’s governments, left reeling by the slowdown in Chinese imports. But insofar as it results in Africa becoming a new theater for Japan and China to play out their rivalry, it risks a return to the days where Africa’s development was held hostage to the interests of competing global powers.

This year’s meeting of the Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD) in Nairobi was the first in 20 years to be held outside Japan. By bringing the conference to Africa, Tokyo is sending a clear a message that it is placing a renewed emphasis on Japanese-African trade relations. Indeed, the $30 billion pledged this year for infrastructural development in Africa, coming on the back of a $32 billion package offered just three years ago, speak volumes to the new-found importance the continent has to Japan’s overseas trade.

At a time when Japan is employing every policy tool in its arsenal to reinvigorate its economy, Japanese trade officials seem to have realized they have been slow to capitalize on Africa’s growth potential as a way to help lift Tokyo out of its malaise. Since the bursting of a housing bubble in the early 1990s, Japan has seen almost no real GDP growth and two decades of stagnation, as businesses and consumers have opted to pay off debt rather than invest and spend their earnings. Coupled with falling wages, the result has been a chronic state of deflation that has outlasted more than a dozen prime ministers, including a previous turn by current leader Shinzo Abe. This time around, Abe has staked his premiership on injecting some inflationary spark back into the Japanese economy.

If the $62 billion Japan has pledged to Africa over the past three years is any indication, it would seem Abe’s “Abenomics” formula includes tapping into underexplored African markets. As China’s slowdown has caused a slump in African raw materials exports, bringing relative boom times for many African economies to a shuddering halt, Japan would make for a welcome alternative customer. Economics, though, aren’t the sole motivator behind Tokyo’s African forays.

Politics by Other Means

Indeed, it is the very success of Chinese investment in Africa, and importantly, the diplomatic support that this has earned Beijing among African countries, that Japan is trying to match. Africa is slowly opening up as an alternative front in the Sino-Japanese rivalry now raging in the East China Sea. No less than 39 African countries publicly opposed a recent ruling from The Hague declaring China’s maritime claims in the South China Sea illegal, showing just how harmful Tokyo’s disengagement with African governments can be to its interests.

Naturally, improved ties with Africa could help provide some diplomatic cover for Japan as it seeks out international support for its maritime dispute against China. This is certainly how the Chinese have perceived the Nairobi conference, taking particular issue with its declaration on the importance of promoting maritime security and international maritime law. China has taken this as a criticism of Beijing’s maritime policies, prompting a government spokesperson to lambast the TICAD conference as a means for Japan to “impose its wills [sic] on African countries… and drive a wedge between China and African countries.”

Certainly, from the Japanese perspective, the African Union and its 50 UN members are worth currying favor with should there be any UN votes relating to Japan’s maritime disputes with China. In this regard, however, Japan has a lot of catching up to do with China. Overall trade between Japan and Africa amounted to $24 billion in 2015, whiles China’s $179 billion gives it a major advantage in terms of economic diplomacy.

In that scramble to catch up, Japan should be careful who it cozies up to. At his main on-on-one meeting on the sidelines of TICAD, Shinzo Abe thanked Djibouti’s president, Omar Ismael Guelleh, for his continued support for Japanese personnel based in the East African country. Lest it be forgotten, Guelleh has ruled Djibouti as his own personal fiefdom for nearly 20 years, brooking no dissent. There is not a single opposition member sitting in the parliament, while in the streets, freedom of assembly is denied and political gatherings are met with brute force. Political activists are routinely disappeared, tortured, and sometimes even killed. Djibouti ranks near last place on every index of good governance, quality of life, and human rights, begging the question why Abe saw fit to give Guelleh a special audience. In all likelihood, that place of privilege is meant to safeguard Japan’s interests in Djibouti, where it has had a military base since 2011. If it is security for its military assets that Japan seeks, Guelleh has proven himself to be fickle in this regard: he unceremoniously evicted the American military from one of their Djibouti bases to make way for the Chinese.

If Japan wishes to challenge China’s dominance in Africa, it has an uphill battle ahead of it. With much ground to make up in that contest, it can only be hoped the needs of African people won’t be sacrificed in the process.

Jonathan Connars is an American investment risk analyst and researcher currently based in Southeast Asia.