Japan’s presence in Africa was heavily felt recently when Nairobi hosted the Sixth Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD).
The city roads were jammed with traffic, hotels fully booked, conference halls occupied and hi-tech security in place.
At the conference, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced that between 2016 and 2018, Japan will invest in Africa’s future through implementing measures aiming to develop quality infrastructure, promote resilient health systems and lay the foundations for peace and stability, amounting to about $30 billion under public-private partnerships.
According to the prime minister, the measures include the human resource development involving 10 million people by making use of the strength of Japan, a euphemism for quality.
He further suggested that the commitment was the first step in putting this year’s G7 Ise-Shima Summit outcomes into practice, and as the G7 president, Japan will steadily realize those outcomes.
Moreover, Japan pledged $10 billion in infrastructure projects, which it said would be executed in partnership with the African Development Bank.
It is indisputable that Japan’s intensifying contribution to African development is a highly positive sign of enhanced international efforts, while at the same time places it in competition with China in Africa.
There are those that hold a mostly negative view of Japan’s renewed interest in Africa. The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, for instance, has accused Japan of attempting to impose its will on African countries and driving a wedge between China and African countries. The accusation is informed by the observation that prior to the TICAD VI, Japan attempted but terribly failed at inserting political issues into the conference’s agenda.
As a result, this gave Japan a platform to politicize a summit that was supposed to be focused on African development. From the Nairobi deliberations, it is clear that Japan’s interests include economic gains. Indeed, the country’s lack of natural resources has made it dependent greatly on the foreign market.
On the most crucial item of energy, Japan has in the recent past intensified its reliance on oil and natural gas imports. This was propelled after the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster that resulted in the shutdown of almost all of the country’s nuclear reactors. In essence, it is well documented that Japan is pursuing resources diplomacy in Africa.
Recent research shows that there is a strong correlation between countries being the recipients of Japanese official development assistance and being sources of important raw materials. Furthermore, it appears Japan’s surging hunger for a piece of Africa is pegged on the fact that African export markets are potentially important for Japan’s economic diplomacy in Africa, particularly the export of Japanese infrastructure projects.
But perhaps the biggest issue of concern is Japan’s expanding political influence in Africa, which is a result of its surging economic diplomacy. It is no surprise that Japan is hoping to enlist the support of African countries for UN Security Council reform, a shared aspiration by both Japan and Africa.
Its military presence in Africa is also being felt. Five years ago, Japan opened a military base in Djibouti, which it argued would help combat piracy off the coast of the Horn of Africa.
However, a closer look suggests that Japan is using Africa’s security threats as an excuse for its military expansion.
Africa should not be excited by Japan’s emerging interests. They appear more driven by a desire to settle its geopolitical tussle with China rather than boosting Africans’ welfare. A quick look at history shows that Japan has clearly lagged behind China in engaging Africa. Economically, Japan’s overall direct investment in Africa totaled $1.24 billion last year. On the other hand, China’s investment in Equatorial Guinea alone was $2 billion as of April 2015. During the same year, Japan’s total trade with Africa, $24 billion, was dwarfed by the $179 billion in China-Africa trade.
On the political front, Africa is no doubt a higher priority in Chinese foreign policy. For the past 26 years, Chinese foreign ministers have visited the continent consistently. Chinese top leaders have also maintained their annual visits to Africa. Crucially, the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation has alternated its venue between China and Africa every three years since its inception 16 years ago. In comparison, the summit in Nairobi is the first time TICAD has ever been held in Africa. In this sense, Japan will have a lot of catching-up to do to bring Japan-Africa cooperation to the same level.
All these arguments point to the fact that Africa needs to properly evaluate its new friends, the same friends who purport to bring transformation that threatens to push selfish, narrow geopolitical interests.