Japan trails China in race for Africa

By David Whitehouse
Posted on Tuesday, 19 March 2019 18:11

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe addresses a Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) panel in Nairobi in August 2016. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya

Does Japan have any realistic prospect of competing with China on equal terms in Africa? Tokyo still hopes so.

In June, Japan will propose new guidelines on development assistance when it hosts the Group of 20 summit, as it seeks to check China’s extension of influence in Africa and Asia through infrastructure project financing, Nikkei reported on March 18.

  • The guidelines will give anti-corruption and fiscal sustainability as key principles for development assistance in a bid to oblige China to follow international norms in infrastructure financing, according to Nikkei.

Japan’s poor endowment in natural resources, especially in terms of oil, has made the country dependent on international supplies.

  • Tokyo’s need to gain access to African energy resources was sharpened by the Fukushima nuclear accident in 2011.

The next round of Japan’s aid and trade deals will be up for discussion at the Tokyo International Conference on African Development meeting, to be held in August of this year in the city of Yokohama.

And Japan has provided assistance for infrastructure projects in Africa, such as to the Ugandan government for the construction of the Kampala Metropolitan transmission line, for development around the Mombasa port in Kenya, and for the Tanzania-Zambia railway flyover bridge.

There is an irony in the fact the Chinese government learnt about bundling aid into complex financial packages when Japan and Western countries started to provide such aid to China. Japan’s new proposal will also call for aid donors to consider a country’s ability to repay its debts – a little like a football team appealing on financial fair play rules after all the trophies have been lost.

Doing the miles: China’s authoritarian governance allows it to mobilise projects faster than Japan, where slowly built consensus is crucial to decision-making.

  • According to a 2018 paper from Seifudein Adem, associate research professor at Binghamton University, New York, China has built more language schools in Africa in the past ten years than Japan did in the last half century.
  • Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s 2014 visit, Adem argues, was reactive in that it was triggered by a belated Japanese realisation that the Chinese had got ahead of them in Africa.

Old friends: Chinese diplomacy in Africa is also much older than that of Japan. The country supported national liberation movements in Africa in the 1950s and forged relations with independent African countries so long as those states were not US allies. Japan, meanwhile, sought to curb the spread of communism in Africa by supporting the US Cold War strategy. The Chinese diaspora on the African continent is growing fast. Japan has virtually none.

The result? Chinese leaders have put far more effort into cultivating contacts in Africa than have their Japanese counterparts.

  • Over the past three decades, Chinese foreign ministers have visited Africa consistently for their first foreign trip after the new year.
  • China’s top leaders have made a total of 79 visits to 43 different African countries over the past ten years, according to consulting firm Development Reimagined.
  • There are only nine African countries that have not been visited by Chinese leaders over the past decade.

Fighting talk: In contrast, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to Africa in 2014, which prompted a brawl between members of the Chinese diaspora and Japanese embassy security in Addis Ababa, followed an eight-year lag in African visits at the prime ministerial level. The private sector has not stepped into the breach. Since its bubble burst in the early 1990s, Japan has seen almost no real GDP growth and two decades of stagnation. Businesses have opted to strengthen their balance sheets rather than embark on foreign investments.

Bottom line: Japan’s risk averse, consensual culture and its historical isolation has left it behind in the race for Africa. It will take more than a set of development guidelines to give it any prospect of catching up.

Understand Africa's tomorrow... today

We believe that Africa is poorly represented, and badly under-estimated. Beyond the vast opportunity manifest in African markets, we highlight people who make a difference; leaders turning the tide, youth driving change, and an indefatigable business community. That is what we believe will change the continent, and that is what we report on. With hard-hitting investigations, innovative analysis and deep dives into countries and sectors, The Africa Report delivers the insight you need.

View subscription options