Under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Japan has taken a much more significant interest in African affairs. This has primarily focused on economic development, but also geopolitics, at times with a commitment to work with India to counterbalance China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
The seventh Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD), held in August 2019, provided a window into Japan’s policies in Africa. The event was designed in part to help Japanese companies (and their government) to position themselves in Africa, where rival China’s influence is well established. The Japanese welcomed some of Africa’s most prominent leaders, including South African president Cyril Ramaphosa and Rwandan president Paul Kagame.
Japan pledged to some US$30 billion in public and private investment over three years at the 2016 edition of TICAD. Yet, this has often been spent prudently—such as a US$94 million doled out to renovate a Kenyan geothermal plant.
The 2019 event ended with Japan promising some US$20 billion in private sector investment over three years.
“If partner countries are deeply in debt, it interferes with everyone’s effort to enter the market,” said Abe at the event. Elsewhere, his comments on sustainability of engagement in Africa offered veiled swipes at China’s role in Africa.
Despite being the fourth-largest spender on development aid in Africa, Japanese trade with the African Union has been much slower to develop. Indeed, Japan’s trade with Africa in 2017 was worth US$17 billion, less than half of what it was in 2008. Meanwhile, China conducted some US$204 billion in trade with Africa in 2018 alone. However, other metrics tell a different tale there were some 800 Japanese competes in Africa in 2018 as compared to just 250 in 2010.
One possible reason Japan is treading cautiously in Africa is that it likes to avoid moving unilaterally and may be seeking to work more closely with partners in Africa.
Of potential partners for engagement with Africa for Japan, the most important may be that other large Asian democracy which is concerned about the rise of China – India.
Japan and India were the two main drivers behind the launch in 2017 of the Asia-Africa Growth Corridor (AAGC), which is often touted as an alternative to Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative. Bangladesh, Iran, Kenya, Madagascar, the Maldives, Mauritius, Mongolia, Myanmar, Seychelles, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Tanzania, Thailand, Zambia, and Zimbabwe all became members of the project.
Yet, three years later, little has come of the effort, and a frustrated Japan may refocus on its vision of a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific”, a vision announced in Kenya by Prime Minister Abe in 2016 at the TICAD VI summit.
Japan’s plan to help Madagascar build a port at the outer edge of the Indo-Pacific region suggests how seriously Japan is committed to the plan.
Japan envisions several economic corridors: a West African Growth ring to connect the Ivory Coast, Togo, Burkina Faso, and Ghana; an East African route to connect Kenya’s Mombasa with Uganda (which is likely in keeping with IGAD’s infrastructure corridor plans); and the Nacala Corridor which will run through the Southern African countries of Malawi, Zambia, and Mozambique (in order to export coal to Japan).
On the security front, Japan is well ahead of potential partner India in developing ties with the continent. India held its first defense exercise with seventeen African nations last year. Japan, conversely, has built its first overseas military base since World War II in Djibouti, and spent funds to help stabilize northern Nigeria.
These commitments have not come without risks. In 2017, Japan was forced to withdraw its 350-man peacekeeping contingent based in Juba, South Sudan, after its deployment caused controversy in Japan due to the ongoing South Sudanese Civil War. That same year, a Chinese official newspaper reported that a Japanese naval ship had sent scuba divers to approach a Chinese warship while both ships were docked in a Djibouti harbor.
“Japan bears the responsibility of fostering the confluence of the Pacific and Indian Oceans and of Asia and Africa into a place that values freedom, the rule of law, and the market economy, free from force or coercion, and making it prosperous,” said Prime Minister Abe at the opening session of TICAD VI.