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Sino-Japanese rivalry in Africa: blessing in disguise?

Sino-Japanese rivalry in Africa: blessing in disguise?

Under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Japan has been pushing to boost its global standing. In that effort, Abe's administration has put Africa at the center of its foreign policy. To this end, Japan opted to utilize its three decades old initiative, the Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD). The initiative, since its inception at the end of the Cold War, is recognized as the highlight of Japanese foreign policy on Africa. It was launched in 1993, when the global attention, for certain period of time was off from Africa, to help with development in Eastern Europe and reconstructing the former Soviet Republic which was damaged by the war. Japan took this initiative as a tool to bring back the global attention in to Africa's development. That means, TICAD is not a partnership between Japan and Africa alone. Rather, it is an international platform for Africa's development led by Japan and co-organized by the UN, UNDP, World Bank, and other international CSOs including the private sector. Conducting a high level summit in a five years interval on Africa's development issues had been TICAD's norm. The initiative has served as a platform for Japan and the other stakeholders understand the development priorities of Africa and its grave security challenges. But, TICAD was not that vibrant compared to similar partnerships such as China Africa Development Forum and other bilateral partnerships, in addressing the challenges and fostering the continent's development, commentators say. 

One of the tangible aspects in Japanese foreign policy vis-a-vis Africa is its Official Development Assistance (ODA), Alain Antil, a researcher and head of the Sub-Sahara Africa program at French Institute of International Relations (Ifri) contends in his research titled, "Japanese Revived African Policy". 

According to him, in 1970s, Japanese assistance destined to the continent was only 2.2 percent of the overall ODA to Africa. This figure rose to 15.3 percent in 1989. Furthermore, Japan continued to increase the level of its ODA assistance in to Africa. In 2016, Africa accounted for 28 percent of grants, 15 percent in technical cooperation and 4 percent of concessional loans from Japan.

The most recent signs of Tokyo’s increased interest to the continent was revealed in late August 2016, when its Prime Minister travelled to Kenya to attend the six round TICAD, a meeting convened by Japan, 54 African states, and several international organizations. Prime Minister Abe who came in to power in 2012 has emphasized Africa key in his the foreign policy document. Among the manifestations, the Prime Minister immediately reduced the five years interval of the TICAD summit to three years and to be held alternatively in Japan and Africa. Thus, TICAD six is the first summit held on African soil and historic in its pledge for the continent's development and reflected a policy shift from aid (ODA) to trade as well as from government to the private sector partnership.

Vying for economic sphere of influence

Japan and Africa are very distant and they don't have dense history or exchange of businesses compared to other Asian countries. For instance, its biggest Asian comparator, China has committed tens of billions dollars to the continent over the past one and half decade. Again, at the 2015 Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, a summit that Beijing first convened in 2000, Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged more than 60 billion USD in investment to the continent. India has also stepped in to the competition in Africa. In 2010, it launched the India-Africa Business Forum, and as of 2014, it had some 15 billion USD invested in ventures in African states, according to reports. 
Nonetheless, Japanese senior officials who met with The Reporter in Tokyo late last July believes there is still a room for Japan to play with its latest and unique approach. 

"TICAD Six has brought a new venture in our relationship with the continent," Takashi Shibata, deputy director of the African Division at the African Affairs Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA) told The Reporter. During the Nairobi summit Prime Minister Abe appeared bold in his aspirations to deepen Japanese tie with the continent. Accordingly, he pledged more than USD 30 billion in Japanese investment to infrastructure projects across the continent over the next three years, Takashi said. The pledge is considered the largest commitment in TICAD’s history.

Aligning Japanese program with Africa's own development agenda is the philosophy in the new approach, Takashi said. 

In line with this philosophy, the six According to him, TICAD has identified three priority areas where Japan will focus in its assistance to the continent over the coming three years

Helping to transform the African states economic structure, now mostly dependent on primary products is the first priority. To this end, Japan will develop quality infrastructure as a foundation of the economy and to promote the involvement of Japanese private sector, Takashi said. According to him, ten billion USD is already allocated to provide with quality infrastructures that will mainly strengthen region wide connectivity in three priority areas. The Mombasa corridor that will connect Kenya with Uganda, Rwanda, Tanzania and South Sudan is the first segment. The Nacala Corridor and the Growth Area in West Africa are the remaining blocks, Takashi told The Reporter.
Japan also allocated enormous amount of budget for the supply of electric power. According to Takashi, Japan will help African states to increase their power generation capacity by up to 2000MW under a public private partnership approach.  Furthermore, Takashi believes that the six TICAD was marked by the large presence of (over 200) companies from Japan and by the number of parallel economic events including 73 Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) agreements between 22 Japan companies and African countries. 

ifri's researcher  Alain, agrees on the significance of TICAD six in opening a new page for Japanese relation with Africa. 
"TICAD, originally a development forum has turned into a tool for promoting Japanese private sector as a development partner," he said, "it is a turning point on Japanese partnership with Africa," he underscored. 
Alain, however, is skeptical on the possibilities of successful implementation of the plan.

The high-end products from Japan are not suited to the African consumer purchasing power, additionally, security concerns in the continent will jeopardize Japanese endeavor, he argued. "Africa has more or less flattering image in the Japanese imagination due to the security tension coupled with the emergence of radicalism in the continent," he explained. Consequently, this has created a perception of the continent with fraught and danger that would affect Japanese ability to send expatriate in to the African states, he concluded.

True to form, the concerns raised by Alain are already identified by the Japanese authorities. 
"Before launching TICAD six we have made consultations with Japanese investors on the possibilities of investing in Africa," Seiji Orada deputy director of the African Affairs department at MoFA reminds. 

During the consultations, the investors have showed their strong interests to do businesses in Africa. According to him, Africa is lucrative for Japanese private sector in terms of its natural resources and big growth potential in the future. The rising population size also makes the continent a big market for Japan, Seiji explained.

There is no concern for Japan firms to sell their high-end products because the middle class in the African states has been rising, he contends. According to him, the rise of the continent's middle class will create an appetite to consume quality products, consequently offering a new opportunity for Japanese companies to sell their high-end products, he argued. 

In spite of this, the continent's security situation and the business environment is a big concern, he admitted. But, the government of Japan together with African states will work hard to redress security concerns and promote the business climate, he ascertained. To this end, Japan through the ongoing three years program of TICAD six has availed half billion USD for African states. 

The fund will be utilized to implement comprehensive measures to lay the foundations for peace and stability, such as providing education and vocational trainings. In addition, Japan will help the African states strengthen their capacity as well as to share and analyze information and control their borders.

Is it only for economic cooperation?

Aid and economic cooperation are not always pure from politics. Western donors, through IMF and World Bank, dubbed Washington Consensus Institutions, usually attach good governance, adoption of policies and institutions and other to do lists with their aid policies. 

Once exposed to the Washington Consensus aid formulas, East Asian countries have made economic miracles on their own development path, deviating from the Western development traditions

Now, they have caught up economically with the West and became an alternative source of aid and cooperation for Africa. Unlike the Western aid tradition that focuses on poverty reduction, East Asian countries preferred on promoting economic development and growth in the Africa. 

From infrastructure development to technology transfer and from agriculture to industrial transformation, by helping African states build industrial zones become the trend in their cooperation and aid policies. However, their policies are not immune from embedded political interests. Emerging research findings are now correlating the East Asian countries economic cooperation with the foreign policy influence it has on the continent. A study published in The Journal of Politics, “The Foreign Policy Consequences of Trade: China’s Commercial Relations with Africa and Latin America, 1992-2006,” by Gustavo Flores-Macías and Sarah E. Kreps of Cornell University, is among the research findings. The study found out, the presence of greater foreign policy alignment between China and its most trading states of Africa. 

The authors measured United Nations General Assembly vote alignment by country on human rights — an issue on which China has held constant. They consequently found out China's increased trade relation for having a greater impact on foreign policy convergence than a given country’s relationship with the United States. 

"If a country receives aid from the United States, that country will vote against China 3 percent more frequently. But, if a country trades with China, that country will vote with China 8 percent more frequently," they asserted.

Similarly, there are several political reasons that explain Japanese increased interest in to Africa. For ifri's researcher Alain, Japan is looking to assume the role of a world power by taking part in the development and security of Africa. 
By doing this Japan is trying to counterbalance China's increasing presence and political influences on the continent, he said. Furthermore, securing the continent's political support will be valuable for Japan which is currently pushing for a reform of the UN Security Council where it is seeking to get a permanent seat, he concluded. 

To be exact, Japanese authorities who spoke with The Reporter in Tokyo, explicitly put the political and strategic objectives their government is looking to gain along the economic cooperation in the continent. The continent that houses 54 countries and accounts for 54 votes out of the total 195votes in the UN will be valuable for Japan when it comes to pursuing the agenda of reforming the UNSC or other diplomatic agendas, Tashika told The Reporter
"54 countries in one voice against Japan will be the most challenging task," he admittedly asserted the political dimension of Japan's move in to the continent. 

During the occasion of TICAD summit held in Nairobi, Prime Minister Abe has announced his new foreign policy, named "Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy". According to Takashi, the strategy doesn't limit itself in Africa, but it is relevant for the new Japan Africa partnership.  

"That is why he chose to announce this new foreign policy strategy on the occasion of TICAD rather than any other forum he may have," he told The Reporter. 

According to the Japanese perspective, the 21 century global growth, peace and prosperity rely on how best Asia's growing powers are linked with the enormous potentials of Africa. 

Therefore, port infrastructures and the maritime route in the entire Indo-Pacific Ocean must be open and not under exclusive use of specific countries, Takashi said. 

However, China is said to have boosting its presence in the maritime route by developing port infrastructures in various parts such as Djibouti, Egypt, Pakistan and more others. It has also launched "Road and Belt Initiative" to revive the ancient international maritime trade route, dubbed the Silk Road. Similarly, UAE and Saudi are expanding their naval presences in to the Red Sea and India Ocean. 

"We take the issue up every time we see such reports. We approach the countries facing the oceans and those countries reportedly developing the ports," Takashi told The Reporter, adding "We don't shy away, because our national security is also at stake once this maritime route is put in jeopardy."

To make this strategy in to shape, Prime Minister Abe is now working to create a new cooperation with India which he considered for having good and historical relationships with the Eastern African states, as well as with the US and Australia, Takashi said.

By Yohannes Anberbir