Japan’s push for ‘quality engagement’ with Africa

At the Yokohama summit, Tokyo stressed that its investments will be different from China’s projects

September 07, 2019 09:15 pm | Updated 09:35 pm IST - Tokyo

Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe delivering a speech during the opening session of the Tokyo International Conference on African Development in Yokohama on August 28, 2019.

Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe delivering a speech during the opening session of the Tokyo International Conference on African Development in Yokohama on August 28, 2019.

In late August, the seventh Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD) was held in the port city of Yokohama, as Japan stepped up its efforts to counter China’s muscle in Africa. The summit emphasised Tokyo’s attempt to shift its relationship with the African continent, away from the development assistance that has been its motor in the past to promote a business-led engagement.

Tellingly, no target figures for aid were given at the summit, even as Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced that the archipelago’s private sector will invest $20 billion over the next three years in Africa.

Moreover, the China-sized elephant in the room meant that considerable effort was expended in explaining how Japan’s investments in the continent would differ from its larger neighbour’s. Speaking to the press, Masahiko Kiya, Japan’s Ambassador for TICAD, claimed that Japanese investments would ensure that countries remained free from debt traps, in addition to be being of ‘higher quality’ and adhering to ‘higher standards’ — ‘higher’ than what was not specified, but the implications were understood.

Japan’s China problem, be it in Africa or the rest of Asia, is that it lacks the heft and size to compete on quantity, hence the refrain of quality. The tactic has had some takers, particularly given the need for many countries to hedge against Beijing’s overweening influence.

At his opening remarks at TICAD, Mr. Abe gave some examples of “quality” Japanese engagement, including a small satellite built by Rwanda together with the University of Tokyo that will provide valuable agricultural data. He also mentioned that the new 6,165 km-long undersea cable linking Angola and Brazil had been laid by Japanese company NEC (Nippon Electric Company).

Other recent examples of Japanese private sector involvement in Africa include last year’s $2 million investment by Toyota in Kenyan logistics firm Sendy, as well as Sumitomo Corporation’s stake in the Nairobi-headquartered pay-as-you-go solar firm M-Kopa (the amount has not been disclosed).

Huge Chinese presence

Despite the attempted hype, compared to Chinese investments, these remain winnow-like. In September 2018, during China’s conference with African leaders in Beijing, Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged $60 billion in financing. China’s trade with Africa totalled $200 billion in 2018, about 12 times the value of trade between the continent and Japan, which stood at $17 billion. Between 2000 and 2017, China loaned about $143 billion to African governments and their state-owned companies, according to figures from the China-Africa Research Initiative at Johns Hopkins University.

It is also funding and building major prestige projects like Kenya’s Standard Gauge Railway as well as the Addis Ababa-Djibouti Railway. According to the Japan Times , more than 3,700 Chinese firms have an established presence in Africa and about one million Chinese people live on the continent, compared to 800 Japanese firms and 8,000 Japanese people.

China’s investments have been a geostrategic headline for many years now, but critics have pointed out how small countries like Djibouti may soon sacrifice their sovereignty in return for Chinese money. Nearly 80% of Djibouti’s debt is held by China. And it’s not very different even in large nations. According to documents obtained by Kenya’s Business Daily newspaper, China accounts for 72% of Kenya’s bilateral debts.

When Japan and India issued a statement in September 2017 announcing their intent to develop an industrial corridor connecting Asia and Africa, dubbed the Asia-Africa Growth Corridor (AAGC), it was also tom-tommed as an alternative to unsustainable Chinese debt. In the years since, however, little progress has been made on the project, other than an occasional joint investment, like a recent one to build a cancer hospital in Kenya.

In response to a question on the AAGC by The Hindu , Mr. Kiya, the TICAD Ambassador, appeared unaware about what the AAGC was. Other analysts in Tokyo said that while cooperation with India in Africa was in principle a good idea, there is no ongoing work on the AAGC, and Japan would like to subsume any cooperation under its Free and Open Indo-Pacific vision.

“Japan will endeavour to exercise leadership on African soil through standard setting,” Ambassador Kiya concluded. But regardless of last month’s summitry, as matters stand, this declaration is unlikely to give Beijing sleepless nights.

Pallavi Aiyar is a journalist based in Tokyo

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