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China’s invisible presence at Japan’s TICAD 7

Cobus van Staden
By Cobus van Staden
Senior China-Africa researcher, South African Institute of International Affairs

Cobus is the head of research and analysis at the China Africa Project (, an independent non-partisan media platform dedicated to exploring every facet of China's engagement in Africa where he also co-hosts the weekly China in Africa Podcast and edits the China Africa Project's daily email newsletter.

Posted on Friday, 30 August 2019 19:42

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Finance Minister Taro Aso pose for a photo with African Union chairperson and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres, other leaders of African nations and representatives of international organisations during the seventh Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD) in Yokohama, south of Tokyo, Japan 28 August 2019. Kyodo/via REUTERS

There’s a disconnect at The 7th Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD 7) this year.

The gap isn’t between Japan and Africa. Rather it’s between the experience of being inside TICAD and how it’s being represented in the media. The dominant outside narrative is that TICAD is all about China – calling it Japan “taking on” China in Africa has become a cliché.

The one place where China is absent, however, is inside the ocean liner hull of the Pacifico Yokohama Conference Centre. The mood here is all about the Japan-Africa business potential. While the summit’s list of side events touch on familiar developmental themes (climate change, UN Sustainable Development Goals, poverty reduction), the suggested solutions tend to veer away from traditional aid and towards business solutions aimed at achieving a wider good.

This focus reflects a continuation of the goals for African cooperation Japan set during its G20 presidency this year, one of which was a focus on small, medium and micro enterprises (SMMEs). This focus has been honed into a narrative of African success via Japanese investment, a new version of win-win development. As Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s says, “The Japanese government will do its utmost to support Japanese enterprises betting on the future of Africa.”

SMMEs solution to Africa’s problems

The main message out of TICAD 7 is that SMMEs offer solutions to many of Africa’s problems. This is a lesson taken directly from Japan’s history of development, and TICAD 7 shows that Japan has conclusively shifted its focus away from aid and towards business. The dizzying number of seminars, talks and exhibitions taking place on the side of the closed high-level meetings list example after example of business-forward attempts to boost SMME development in Africa.

These have drawn in a wide range of support, with traditional development financiers such as the World Bank and the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) joined by business organisations like the Japan External Trade Organisation (JETRO), Japanese commercial banks and a wide range of Japanese firms. However, while the official narrative makes these players seem as enthusiastic about Africa as a Labrador for a swimming pool, indications are that many Japanese firms remain hesitant.

What’s China’s role?

The question is, where China is in all of this? Unlike the Trump administration’s explicit focus on containing Chinese influence on the continent, I didn’t hear representatives of the government or Japanese agencies mention China at all. This doesn’t mean that China was absent. Rather, I would argue, its influence can be seen on a much wider level.

The very business-ward turn of TICAD is arguably an acknowledgement that China’s commercial engagement with Africa has fundamentally altered what engagement with Africa looks like. Speaker after speaker urged investors to look past Africa’s stigma of risk, towards its robust economic growth rates and potential as an emerging market. They didn’t mention that Chinese engagement with the continent played a key role in this conceptual shift. For all the talk in development circles about making money at the bottom of the pyramid, Chinese companies changed perceptions by actually going ahead and making that money in Africa. Despite the wide (and under-reported) engagement by Japanese companies on the continent, many speakers at TICAD 7 acknowledged that perceptions of risk remain dominant.

New opportunities

I would argue that the Japanese government calculated that there is little to be gained from explicitly criticising China in Africa. Rather, it has identified gaps in China’s African engagement that offer new opportunities. SMME development offers one such gap. Falling between two prominent but criticised forms of Chinese engagement in Africa: large-scale projects funded by Chinese government loans and completed by Chinese contractors, and small businesses started by Chinese migrants, Japan is focusing on its support of African SMMEs.

This focus includes both financing the enterprises through bodies like JICA and matchmaking them with Japanese commercial investors. The result is good-news presentations about companies like Ultramaille, a fabric producer in Madagascar, using Japanese knitting machines to produce knitwear for labels like Kenzo.

These stories of African SMME success resonate with African concerns about low levels of skills transfer and localisation from Chinese companies on the continent. They also dovetail with the Japanese promotion of “quality” infrastructure, human resource development and its focus on areas where China has little engagement. One such area is pro-active disaster mitigation, a field where Japan’s own misfortunes have made it a world leader.

Possible collaboration

The result is a form of messaging where China’s engagement in Africa is targeted implicitly, without having to address it explicitly. This prevents the summit from becoming about China in Africa, while also not precluding the possibility of collaborating with China in Africa.

The question is how effective this approach will be. TICAD 7 made a notable break with the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation and TICAD 6 by not announcing a “number” – a set target for official financing in Africa. At the TICAD 6 summit in 2016, that target was $30bn, one that was reached, albeit with some creative accounting. The refusal to set a specific target allows flexibility and reflects the current climate where China faces as much criticism as praise for its lending to Africa. But it also robs the Japanese government of a big announcement.

The bottom line: The question is how much the perception of a big “number” is worth right now. The answer might not be found in Yokohama (or Beijing) but in whether African countries feel confident they will become the global economy’s next good-news story.

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