Rising Sino-Japanese competition in Africa

On August 27 and 28, the Sixth Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD VI) was held in Nairobi, Kenya—the first time the TICAD has been hosted in Africa since its inception in 1993. During the forum, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pledged $30 billion in public and private support for African development over the next three years, including $10 billion for infrastructure projects executed in cooperation with the African Development Bank. While Japan’s heightened contribution to African development is a highly positive sign of enhanced international efforts, such positivity is shadowed by the broad coverage on Japan intensifying its competition with China in Africa.

The Chinese mostly hold a negative view of Japan’s renewed interest in Africa. The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs has accused Japan of “attempting to impose its wills on African countries to gain selfish interests and drive a wedge between China and African countries.” The accusation is primarily based on the observation that, prior to TICAD VI, Japan attempted (but failed) to insert political issues—including U.N. Security Council reform and contentious maritime security issues—into the forum’s agenda, therefore politicizing a summit that was supposed to be about African development. Although the final document did not go beyond the Yokohama Declaration on Japan-Africa cooperation from the last TICAD summit in 2013 on Security Council reform and limited the scope of maritime security cooperation to African maritime issues, China nevertheless is exasperated by the attempt of Japan to encroach on what China traditionally sees as the foundation of China’s foreign policy.

Japan’s interest clearly includes economic themes. Japan’s poor natural endowment has made the country dependent on the international market for natural resources. When it comes to energy, Japan has become even more reliant on oil and natural gas imports after the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster shut down almost all of Japan’s nuclear reactors. Japan’s “resources diplomacy” in Africa is well-documented. Indeed, as Senior Fellow at the Institute of Security and Development Policy Bert Edstrom identified in a research paper on the TICAD, “Japan’s ODA to Africa was concentrated on only a few countries. There was a clear correlation between countries being the recipients of Japanese ODA and being sources of important raw materials.” The African export market is also a potential and important frontier for Japan’s economic diplomacy in Africa, especially the export of Japanese infrastructure projects both in terms of hardware and software.

Besides economic issues, China also has a clear concern about Japan’s expanding political influence and military presence in Africa as the result of the economic diplomacy. Japan hopes to enlist African countries’ support for its agenda on U.N. Security Council reform, a shared aspiration by both Japan and Africa. In 2011, Japan opened a military base in Djibouti to help combat piracy off the coat of the Horn of Africa. In the Chinese view, this is a manifestation of the Japanese intention to use African security threats as an “excuse” for its military expansion and alter the international system since the World War II. China is particularly concerned about Japan introducing the issue of freedom of navigation into the discussion with Africa and about the Indian Ocean. It is well-known that the maritime disputes in the East and South China Seas have been a flaring sore sport between China and Japan—especially as Beijing has been put to a disadvantage in the South China Sea due to the July 12 ruling by an international tribunal and China has relied on African support to mitigate its isolation and defend its position. A discussion on the freedom of navigation between Japan and African countries inevitably affects China’s support base.

In reality, Japan has lagged behind China in engagement with Africa. Economically, Japan’s overall direct investment in Africa totaled $1.24 billion in 2015, while China’s single investment in Equatorial Guinea in April 2015 alone cost $2 billion. In the same year, Japan’s total trade with Africa, $24 billion, is dwarfed by the massive $179 billion Sino-Africa trade.  Politically, Africa is visibly a higher priority in Chinese foreign policy. For the past 26 years, Chinese foreign ministers have visited Africa consistently for their first foreign trip after the new year. Chinese top leaders also maintained their annual visits to African continent. The Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) has alternated its venue between China and Africa every three years since its inception in 2000. In comparison, the summit in Nairobi is the first time TICAD has ever been held in Africa. In this sense, even the perception of competition is real, Japan will have a lot of catch-up to do to bring Japan-Africa cooperation to the same level.

But Japan does have its unique advantages coming to Africa’s development. There is no dispute that the quality of Japanese products and projects is superior to those from China. Using electronics as an example, although Chinese products are cheaper, Japanese electronics are more efficient and last much longer. In a widely circulated Chinese commentary comparing Chinese and Japanese road projects in Kenya, the Chinese author acknowledged that the road built by Japan is viewed more positively and favorably by the locals. This is not only because the Japanese project design is more considerate of local needs, but also that Japan used local Kenyan workers and materials.

Japan also enjoys a better image than China in African societies, which is a direct result of the enormous volume of Chinese economic activities in Africa and local convictions about China’s prioritization of business transactions/profits over local African development. Meanwhile, the Japanese government has been dedicating aid, especially aid in capacity building in rural development, water resources, education, and health for decades through organizations such as the Japan International Cooperation Agency. Regardless of the so-called “tied aid” under other Japanese official development aid, these programs truly create an image of enormous altruism and dedication from Japan toward Africa.

China is guilty of doing almost everything it accuses Japan of in Africa. Its engagement with Africa is never free of a political agenda, most easily attested by the Taiwan issue. China has relied on African support at U.N.—as of today, Chinese diplomats still take pride in the 26 votes from Africa in 1971 to restore People’s Republic of China’s seat at the UN, 35 percent of the total votes China received.  China is constructing its own naval base in Djibouti as well, citing logistical needs for naval rest and resupply for its anti-piracy operations. That is nothing less than what Japan has done. And on maritime disputes, China certainly has demanded African support for its position. In terms of economic relations, if the trade and investment data serves as an indicator, the Chinese have attached much more emphasis and allocated more resources to economic relations with Africa than Japan. It would be hypocritical, to say the least, for China to say that everything it does for Africa is selfless and everything Japan does is motivated by “selfish interests.”

By the end of the day, more responsible contributions to African development from all countries should be applauded. The projects should be judged by their merits and by the recipient countries. In this sense, China should look inward on how to improve its own contributions in Africa rather than point fingers at other countries for doing more. After all, it should be all about Africa, and Africa is nobody’s backyard. The continent has seen enough from great power competitions since the colonial ages, and African people will benefit more from a little bit more collegiality among the big powers today.