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China-Japan relations

Japan’s Abe ‘keeping enemies close’ by offering joint Africa development projects to China

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 04 January, 2018, 11:00pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 04 January, 2018, 11:00pm

Japan is to invite China to take part in its development projects in Africa, the latest attempt by Tokyo to build new bridges with Beijing.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is apparently hoping that concessions to China will serve to harden Beijing’s resolve against North Korea’s nuclear and missile programmes, while analysts also suggest that Tokyo is casting around for new allies given the political instability in Washington.

The Yomiuri newspaper has reported that Tokyo envisages the projects as an extension of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s “Belt and Road Initiative”, which aims to create a vast area of economic cooperation stretching from eastern Asia to Africa.

The proposal will be the first one of its kind from Tokyo and the initial phase will suggest collaboration on four existing projects in Africa.

The Growth Ring is designed to provide 4,200km of road links that will bring development to Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Benin and western Nigeria, with 31.5 billion yen (US$280 million) set aside for the project in the form of loans and grant aid.

In West Africa, measures to improve roads and bridges are already being drawn up for Kenya, while roads are also to be upgraded in Rwanda. The final project is the development of road routes along the “international corridor” that links cities in Cameroon with the Republic of the Congo.

“There is enormous demand for investment in Africa, which is really the last frontier of the world’s developing nations,” said Robert Dujarric, director of the Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies at the Tokyo campus of Temple University.

“Those business opportunities also make Africa very appealing to countries like Japan and China, who want to integrate millions of new customers and workers into the global supply chain and the broader economy,” he told the South China Morning Post.

Japan is a wealthy nation, but it does not have the same economic system as China, which stops the Tokyo government from throwing as much money at Africa as Beijing is, Dujarric said, so working in tandem with China makes a lot of sense.

[Abe] knows that he cannot afford to start picking fights with China. So … he is keeping his enemy close
Robert Dujarric

But there are some serious additional considerations in play for Tokyo, he said.

“One problem for Japan – and a lot of other countries in the region – is that the US appears to have gone bananas,” he said. “Tokyo has realised that it cannot expect any sort of policies or initiatives from Washington, where the State Department is in meltdown and a large part of the government appears to have simply shut down.

“Given that situation, Japan needs to make efforts to stabilise the situation in the Asia-Pacific region, at least until a responsible US government returns,” he said. “Japan has to do something because it cannot sit on the sidelines and wait.

“In truth, Abe’s heart is in Yasukuni,” Dujarric said, referring to the shrine in central Tokyo that is the centre of Japanese nationalism. “But he is a rational guy and he knows that he cannot afford to start picking fights with China. So in that sense, he is keeping his enemy close.”

Pang Zhongying, a senior fellow at Ocean University of China, said it is unlikely Beijing and Tokyo will carry out any meaningful cooperation in Africa due to their intense rivalry.

“There have been high expectations that Sino-Japanese relations could finally improve in 2018 and Japan’s offer could be a way of sounding China out,” said Pang.

Beijing is likely to be suspicious of Japan’s intentions. There is already competition over existing infrastructure development in Africa.

“What can Japan really offer when China already has everything including the capital, technology and labour supply? So it’s really hard to tell if China and Japan can really cooperation in Africa,” he said.

Additional reporting by Catherine Wong