Japan may not get things all its own way in Africa push

If Tokyo wants to use African development to further its Security Council agenda, it should expect resistance from China

PUBLISHED : Monday, 05 September, 2016, 3:16am
UPDATED : Monday, 05 September, 2016, 3:15am

For the first time the Tokyo International Conference on African Development has been held outside Japan – in Nairobi, Kenya. This reflects a more aggressive stance by Japan in competing for greater influence in the world’s second most populous continent. What it lacks in the value of trade with Africa compared with China it seeks to make up in the development of technology and human resources to support industrialisation.

The focus on industrial development is not only aimed at offsetting China’s growing influence in Africa, but brings Japan into direct competition with Beijing’s belt-and-road strategy, which also has an emphasis on industrialisation as well as infrastructure. As Beijing restructures its own economy, it aims to make more hi-tech products at home while building low-end industrial capacity in other countries where it can set up factories.

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Africa is embracing the transition to industry because, with global demand for commodities shrinking amid China’s economic slowdown, it seeks to reduce dependence on exporting natural resources.

Critics of China’s no-strings investment in African infrastructure say its practice of using its own workforce comes at the cost of local employment and flow-on economic benefits. China still counts its approach as a success because of a huge increase in trade. Despite a lot of negative reporting, mainly in the Western media, some African leaders have a different perspective. As one minister from a former western colony put it, if no one from the West was ready to invest in infrastructure, such as a mobile phone network, an African nation could still be waiting, or deal with China. It was a simple choice.

But China’s adjustment of its strategy in Africa should include encouraging Chinese companies to find ways in which investment can really benefit ordinary people as well as relations with governments, which are often corrupt.

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Beijing has been quick to question Tokyo’s motives at the Nairobi conference, with the foreign ministry accusing it of advancing its own agenda of garnering support for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council and discussing maritime security issues in an attempt to sow discord between Africa and China. To be sure, winning the support of the large African vote would be important to moves to reform the Security Council. But without the meaningful apology for wartime atrocities demanded by Beijing, Japan could expect both China and South Korea to lobby African nations to oppose a permanent spot for Tokyo.