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Carving out space for Japan in Africa

Carving out space for Japan in Africa

Ambassador Fumio Shimizu is the head of the Japanese Mission to the African Union (AU). A lawyer by profession, Shimizu is a seasoned Japanese diplomate and official at the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Shimizu joined the ministry as early as 1989 and has led various departments and foreign diplomatic missions since then. Apart from working at foreign missions of Afghanistan and France, he has led different multilateral departments at the Ministry. His most recent assignment was deputy-director general of the Asian and Oceanian Affairs Bureau and Southeast southwest Asian Affairs Department at the ministry. In light of the recently concluded TICAD 7 summit from August 28 to 30, 2019 in the Japanese city of Yokohama, Asrat Seyoum of The Reporter sat down with him to assess the outcome of TICAD 7 and the opportunities created to the benefit of the continent and japan alike. Excerpts:  

The Reporter: Can we start with some of the major bullet points of the recent TICAD 7 meeting held in Yokohama, Japan?

Ambassador Fumio Shimizu: As you know the recent TICAD 7 summit held in Yokohama was attended by close to 10,000 delegates from various African countries, partner nations, international organizations, civil society and private sector organizations. So, what is different of this TICAD round is that apart from a number of African leaders, quite sizable number of business leaders from the continent and from elsewhere in the world were present at the summit. Accordingly, Japan placed a huge emphasis on the key role that trade and investment play, apart from ODA, in the development of Africa. If you look at the opening speech of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on the 28th, he clearly stated that Japanese private sector has managed to pour approximately 20 billion dollars into Africa in trade and investment between 2016 and 2019. Furthermore, the Prime Minister announced his government’s unwavering support for Japanese private sector to push the level of investment in Africa even higher. This is a clear commitment made by the Japanese government. But, this by no means implies that Japan will either cut or reduce its ODA flow to Africa. In fact, what it intends to do is encourage the Japanese private sector to invest in Africa, apart from it support via its ODA platform. Of course, tangible African public sector services will remain critical to realize the investment. To this end, the Japanese African Business Forum, composed of Japanese business people and private sector players, has been established to explore opportunities in Africa. From the side of the government, there is clear a commitment to establish what is a called bilateral committee in/with individual African countries comprising of Japanese professional, stationed at various country missions around the continent and governmental representatives of the African countries. These committees would work to eliminate the various business obstacles in the individual markets in Africa; for instance, in Ethiopia we can talk about improving the business environment to attract better investment. Apart from that, since peace and stability is a critical determinant of investment, Japan would actively work to assist governments and nations to improve their overall stability. To achieve stability, solid institutions are very critical; so we support the nations’ institution and capacity building endeavors, vigorously.

Yes, but as we have seen from the TICAD 7 declaration, the continuation of outcomes of the previous TICAD summits is at the top of its priorities. So, in this situation, if we were to ask what the unique outcomes of the latest TICAD, what would that be?

If I were to mention the unique outcomes of the most recent TICAD summit, I may, from the top of my head, raise some two or three points. The first is the strengthening of the Japan-African relation in this latest TICAD. As I have mentioned earlier, this TICAD was also unique in sense that, this year, for the first time, TICAD has hosted an independent session dedicated to public-private dialogue concerning investments in Africa. As far as I understand, 2500 people took part in this session; mostly African political and business leaders took part in this session. In addition to that, there was another side event hosting a dialogue between Japanese and African business leaders and at end of this meeting hundreds of Memoranda of understandings were reportedly singed. Another point may be, as you have mentioned, TICAD is a process that has been going on from TICAD 1 of 1993 to TICAD 7 of 2019. But, at the same time, there are some changes that took place in between this period. For instance, recently African countries have launched the continental free trade area, strengthening the continent’s path towards integration. Nevertheless, contrary to the dynamics in African, elsewhere in the world we see serious challenges to the free movement of goods and people among markets. Also, compared to the conditions in 1993, we see that the world today have changed in terms of the importance of digital innovation. One needs to make use of these advancements in digital technology and innovation, appropriately. So, from the context of TICAD, as much as its focus on continuation, it also take in to consideration these changing conditions in the global arena. Also, we cannot also ignore the adverse effect of climate change around the world, today; so TICAD 7 was held in full consideration of these newly emerging challenges.

This TICAD also appear to have broken its usual trend of announcing envelop ODA resources which Japan intends to make available for Africa. This was the case both in TICAD 5 and 6; what I want to understand is what prompted this break from trend? And, if it has anything to do with the continent’s debt burden?

How shall I say this (laugher). During TICAD 6, Prime Minister Abe announced a commitment of 30 billion dollars to Africa, both through private and public sector cooperation. This time, his announcement mentioned the target of 20 billion to be delivered through private sector investment; and it is true that Japan did not mention the target for its total ODA resources to be made available during the upcoming TICAD implementation years. But, even in TICAD 6, Japan did not announce the total target of its ODA to Africa; it was just the total target including both the private and public sector commitment. This time around, we choose to announce only the private sector investment targets; and we hope this target would be surpassed in the coming three TICAD years. However, if you refer to Prime Minister Abe’s speech, you can see that apart from private investment targets, Japan has also made commitment to provide support in the area of trade insurance, primary education reform (benefiting three million people), training opportunities (through the Abe initiative), support in improving universal health coverage and etc. These are concrete commitments made by Japan for the upcoming three years.

But private investment is not subject to Japanese government’s decisions and hence could not be rightly announced as commitments by the Japanese government, can it?

You are right in asserting that the government cannot assure the said target of investment since they are to be conducted by the private sector. But, the government of Japan has a role to play in encouraging the investment flow to Africa, and it was, in a way, making commitments to do its level best to help the private sector invest the stated amount in the continent. For instance, attracting investment will require having qualified human resources to which the Japanese government will contribute by training some 6ooo industrial professionals under the Abe initiative and another 140,000 people in diversified industries. You can also see the establishment of Enhanced Private Sector Assistance for Africa (EPSA4) program, which will be undertaken in partnership with the African Development Bank, and targets 3.5 billion dollars in three years. Apart from that, we have various governmental programs working to support African countries in the coming years. These are governmental commitments towards supporting the African development.

But we know that in the run up to TICAD 7 summit, your government has made it clear that the debt burden in some of the African nations is really alarming to developing partners like Japan. So, as the Japanese ambassador to the AU, what sort of conversation is Japan having with the indebted African nations?

Last year in October, during the TICAD ministerial meeting, it was said that it has become difficult to get assurances with regard to the disbursement of the 30 billion dollars that Japan availed for the continent in the 2016 TICAD summit. Although economic challenges in the form of the global commodity price decline were among some of the factors, the existence of a debt sustainability issue in some of the African countries was really the major obstacle. It has always been Japan’s belief that if we were to undertake some projects with certain African countries, we want to assure the openness, transparency and financial viability of the projects we undertake and debt the sustainability of the country we engage. While we are keen to support Africa, we, at the same time, do not desire for our support to exacerbate the macroeconomic instability of the recipient countries. We like to continue our support to Africa with due consideration that the support would enhance sustainable development in the recipient countries. And, we do share this important consideration with our partner countries in Africa as stated in the Yokohama declaration, issued after the completion of the TICAD 7.

The joint declaration notwithstanding, in your constant engagement with African countries, what is response from the side of the recipient nations in Africa?

 

But, this Yokohama declaration was adopted both by the ministerial meeting and the TICAD summit, with the wording that macroeconomic stability is important. So, this document is a testament to the view of our partner countries regarding the issue. So, I can say that this commitment is shared by both the Japanese and African leadership structure.

Talking about the declaration, it goes out of its way to reiterate the importance of securing and opening up of the indo-pacific region for global trade. It is also a recently adopted foreign policy mantra for Japan; I just want to understand the basis for this new policy direction?

Japan as in many countries cannot survive and develop in isolation from the global economic family. So, the interconnection to the world, including Africa, is very important for Japan. For instance, the recent piracy problems in the Gulf of Eden have seen the collaboration of different global actors to arrest the situation. So, the piracy issue in the Indian Ocean was not a problem only for Africa or the Middle East; rather it was a global problem that affected Japan severely. Since japan relay in the import of many resources and the exports of its products, the free movement of goods and services in that route is very critical. That is why Japan joined the global community in contributing to the safety and security the trade route. And ensure the rule of law in the region.

So then, what is Japan doing to ensure the security of this very important trade route?

Well, for example, in Djibouti we have taken steps to deploy our maritime security forces to tackle the problem of piracy; and supported the setting up of personal training facility to ensure the safety and security of the area. This is not restricted to Djibouti, but throughout Africa we are supporting capacity building of the authorities and personnel in charge of maritime security and safety. This is not only limited to the Indian Ocean side but also include the Garbo on the Kenyan side.

You have also mentioned the importance of the so called blue economy in connection to the oceans. But, it is also known that ocean resources facing the African continent are generally in worst state with pollution and illegal economic activities. I wonder if Japan has specific projects with regard to that.

I think there are two aspects to maritime safety and security. One is the economic aspect; the blue economy has a lot of potential to economic growth. This is true especially at a time when coastal countries in Africa are suffering from the impact of climate change. However, in the context of hinterland Africa, you also have a lot of freshwater lakes and rivers which have a huge potential for blue economy and the development of the overall economy. And as you may know, Japan has a lot of experience and knowhow on the development of blue economy; and we like to share that with Africa. But, in order to benefit from the blue economy one has to guarantee the safety and security of maritime bodies; and that is why Japan likes to support authorities and institutions in charge of this maritime security. Another challenge to the development of the blue economy is pollution. Nowadays, you find a number of coastal areas polluted by plastic waste and other materials. This is a very crucial issue even around the world, today; and Japan would like to support Africa to tackle such issues.

Terms like quality infrastructure and sustainable development were frequently mentioned in the recent TICAD summit and some pundits speculate that such assertions are directed towards the Chinese engagement in Africa. What would you say to that?

 Well No! (Laugher). We acknowledge that China is an important Actor in the development of Africa. In this regard, Japan would like to cooperate with china towards the development of the continent. Indeed, we feel strongly about the necessity of quality infrastructure in Africa. Many people think quality infrastructure is generally expensive and not affordable for African countries. Well we beg to differ; in fact, we argue that quality infrastructure could perhaps be cheaper if we are to consider the life cycle cost of that infrastructure. There are two options: one is construct a low quality infrastructure at a cheap price and incur considerable maintenance and repair cost throughout the life cycle of the infrastructure. While the other option is to spend a little bit more on quality infrastructure, thereby avoiding huge cost down the road, in the form of maintenance and repair. Now, a certain infrastructure having a life cycle of 20 years, the cost difference could be clearer and quite significant if we consider the life cycle cost. Apart from that, quality infrastructure also means that due consideration is given to its social and environmental impact and its overall value and sustainability. We think it is time for Africa to entertain this idea.

That may well be the case, but low-income African countries are also in a dilemma when it comes to infrastructure. On one hand, presently, they lack the financial resources to procure quality infrastructure. On the other, they can’t generate the necessary finances to pay for quality infrastructure without growth, which in turn will depend on infrastructure. What do you think African counties are ought to do?

It is true that each country have its own financial limitation. We do understand that financial limitations pose challenge for many countries. But, what we are suggesting is serious consideration to quality (the best quality within the available resources). So, with the available budget countries can still go for the maximum possible infrastructure quality.

Seeing that Japan is now more eager for cooperation with Africa and other developing countries, I can’t help but consider the rather stringent immigration policy Japan had for people coming from developing counties. With this renewed push towards Africa, do you expect a shift in Japan’s immigration policy in the near future?

Well, it is a difficult question to answer (laugher). It is my understanding that, last year; the Japanese government cabinet has passed the decision to modify the existing immigration law. And, the modified law came into force this April. With this new modification, foreign workers can now come to work in Japan perhaps much easier than it was in the past. Of course, they still need to have certain level of technical knowhow and Japanese language ability to take advantage of the situation. Having these requirements, foreign workers would have permit to work in Japan up to five years. Currently, sectors like agriculture, manufacturing, construction and services require skilled and semi-skilled foreign workers. So, we think, through this modality, up to 350,000 foreign works can come to Japan to work in the next five years. This change is of course corresponding to the Japanese demographic conditions at the moment. As you know, the Japanese population at this time is an aging population. And, the population number is decreasing. The Japanese economy, thus, requires the injection of new works to the labor force. That is why, unlike the past laws, the recent modified law requires only semi-skilled labor force with certain Japanese language competency. Currently, we are in the process of holding our bilateral talks with various Asian countries regarding the modalities these countries can use to dispatch their workers to Japan. Now, we are focused on Asia but in the future we might have one of those bilateral talks with countries outside of Asia; may be Africa or even Ethiopia to send workers to Japan.