The inauguration of Tanzania’s first overpass on September 27 serves to honor more than Patrick Mfugale, the talented head of Tanzania’s road agency after whom it is named. A prominently placed plaque also heralds the new roadway as “a token of friendship between Japan and the United Republic of Tanzania.” It’s timely reminder that, amid agitation about Chinese investments in Africa, Japan is also vying for influence on the continent.
The roots of significant Japanese interest in Africa can be traced to the end of the Cold War when Japan moved to fill the void left by the great powers. What followed was the first Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD), a powerful statement of Japan’s commitment to the African continent which in turn prompted similar conferences by other “middle powers” including China, India, Singapore, and Turkey.
Japan retains this interest in Africa today and the Tanzanian overpass is but the latest in a series of large-scale infrastructure investments on the continent. At the sixth TICAD, held in 2016, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe promised $30 billion for Africa, to be used in developing infrastructure, promoting resilient health systems and laying the foundations for peace and stability. The fruits of this promise can be seen in Tanzania, where Japan is assisting in the development of a gas power network, in Uganda, where the Jinja Bridge will soon be inaugurated, and in Botswana’s digital terrestrial broadcasting system.
Japanese investment in Africa naturally invites comparison with the activities of China in the same region. The heated rivalry between the two nations and the mix of cooperation and competitiveness that defines their relationship, is a well-trod topic. Certainly, that the Japanese press remains fixated on Chinese foreign policy initiatives and Chinese influence in Africa is no surprise; at least part of the impetus for Japanese investment in Africa comes from a domestic desire to avoid being outmaneuvered by China. Both states are simultaneously trying to take advantage of Africa’s rapidly expanding economy at a time when domestic growth is threatening to slow. Both are also seeking the finance and geopolitical clout necessary to gain a favorable position in the new Pacific order. Currently this new order seems to favor the Chinese, motivating Japan to seek advantages in the African sphere.
The differences in the two Asian powers approaches to Africa is, however, substantial. Most obviously, Japan is broadly seeking to maintain the post-Cold War order whereas China seeks to subvert it. China positions itself as a leader of the developing world, encouraging cooperation in the global South in order to subvert the hegemonic grip of the global North; Japan clearly sees itself as a member of this latter group. An original G6 member, while Japan touts the benefits of South-South cooperation it clearly sees its own role as a paternal one. Its approach to aid in Tanzania and elsewhere typifies this. Most significantly, Japan’s investments are developed in dialogue with the United Nations and the World Bank, institutions central to the post-Cold War order which China’s African aid, more or less explicitly, aims to subvert.
There is also the sensitive question of the actual impact of Chinese and Japanese aid on African nations. China has been criticized for funding “white elephants,” lending vast amounts of to African leaders to pursue flashy vanity projects, tightening relations between China and the ruling power in question while burdening the host nation with debt. In contrast, there is a temptation to see Japanese development aid as more responsible and better geared toward sustainable development, particularly given the positive involvement of the World Bank (often sharply critical of Chinese aid), the United Nations and the African Union. Certainly in Tanzania it is tempting to compare the overpass discussed above and the gas pipeline gradually being laid with Japanese assistance with the needlessly extravagant Chinese-funded National Stadium.
At the same time, Japanese aid is clearly not wholly altruistic and as established, Tokyo shares with Beijing the goals of economic advancement and prestige building. More fundamentally, the World Bank and associated institutions could well be seen not as essential regulators, but as guardians of an unfair world order which continues to privilege the global North over the global South. It is this order that China seeks to subvert and Japan, through projects such as Tanzania’s pioneer overpass, seeks to maintain.
Arran Elcoate is a postgraduate researcher at Bristol University.