When Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met dozens of African leaders and business executives at the Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD) in Yokohama late last month, two things were clear. First, Tokyo would take on China head to head in resource-rich Africa, where Beijing already has the upper hand in development lending and trade. China is Africa’s biggest trading partner, with two-way trade growing twentyfold in the past two decades to US$204 billion last year, according to China’s Commerce Ministry. China’s rapidly growing trade with African countries has jolted Japan, whose total with the continent is less than 10 per cent of China’s, according to the Japan External Trade Organisation. Second, Japan, the world’s third-biggest economy behind the United States and China, plans to take its battle with Beijing for East Asian supremacy to the doorstep of the United Nations Security Council. In Yokohama, Japanese officials sought African countries’ support for its push for reforms at the council, including getting Japan, Germany, Brazil, India and other nations added as permanent members. Winning permanent membership on the body would allow those countries to wield veto power just like the present five permanent members – China, Britain, France, the United States and Russia. Besides the five permanent members, the council has 10 non-permanent members that serve two-year terms. Japan's renewed interest and ambition in Africa has been the by-product of a combination of factors. These include China’s growing national power and its influence in the continent, and the Abe administration’s commitment to pursuing a “muscular” foreign policy towards China, according to Seifudein Adem, a professor at Doshisha University in Kyoto, Japan. “The two countries are now ready to compete not only for raw materials and markets but also for respect and love in Africa,” Adem said. Adem said the prevailing sentiment among Japan’s business leaders was that Africa was not yet ready for Japanese economic involvement in a major way. But a consensus was also emerging that Japan needed to make a move without much delay, he said. Japan keen to do business in Africa as China extends reach China’s and Japan’s growing interest in Africa also is driven by new opportunities for their companies to ensure future growth amid tougher competition in their home markets. China and Japan both see emerging markets as their best bet – and Africa, home to some of the world’s fastest-growing economies and abundant natural resources, is high on the list. Dr István Tarrósy, an associate professor of political science and director of the Africa Research Centre at the University of Pécs in Hungary, said that even though there were abundant challenges, Africa offered a broad market with numerous opportunities and an emerging middle class. Its countries wanted to trade, make their businesses prosper and establish lasting partnerships, while demanding stability from their governments. “Japan does not want to miss the momentum and wishes to strengthen its presence across the continent while contributing to African development and human security in general,” Tarrósy said. “Do not forget that Japan became a lead player in African development by launching the TICAD series and process in 1993, which paved the way for other Asian actors such as China to develop summit diplomacy with African nations.” He added that although China also learned a lot from the conference process, the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, organised by China, was probably the most significant summit now. “From a geopolitical perspective, there is a competition among these different external actors for engaging, and in many cases, re-engaging with Africans. Japan would like to speed up its engagement and stay as an influencer concerning African development,” Tarrósy said. “I am pretty convinced that Japan has the focus as well as means not only to catch up but to stay as an influencing actor. The latest TICAD documents show that the Japanese government is ever so determined to, once again, intensify their presence and engagements in many corners of the African continent.” Shinzo Abe warns African leaders about debt, seeking to counter China Throughout the conference, Tokyo sold itself as a better alternative to Beijing with “quality” investments, promising African countries it would provide better insurance to cover loans to African governments and companies to trade with Japan. With the insurance, Japan wants to avoid risks associated with loan defaults that have hit some African countries. In the past two years, Beijing has been forced to write off some debts for nearly a dozen African countries, including Ethiopia, the Republic of Congo and Cameroon. But for Japan, a country that has always wanted to sit at the main table at the UN, wielding power and influencing global politics and decisions at the world body is even more important. And African countries are a key part of this push. Just as the influx of African countries joining the UN made it difficult to keep Beijing from getting a spot at the United Nations 48 years ago, Tokyo is seeking Africa’s help to win a permanent seat at the UN Security Council, the UN’s powerful body with “primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security”. Japan seeks to counter China in Africa with ‘high-quality’ alternative “I think that Japan has always felt that it deserved more say in global matters as one of the most important global powers,” Tarrósy said. Adem, who is from Ethiopia, said Japan’s interest in becoming a permanent member of the council predated China’s rise. “[Japan] has been pushing for this at least since the early 1990s when it regarded itself and was also regarded by others as a civilian power,” he said. “Japan at the time was also a top ODA [official development assistance] donor. What motivates Japan in this regard is primarily prestige followed by the influence that would come with membership.” UN Security Council reform was a common theme at each private meeting in Yokohama that Abe held with leaders and representatives from more than 50 African nations and international bodies. Why China’s investment in Africa might not be so smart Besides Japan, Brazil, India and Germany also are pushing the most for permanent seats on the council. But roadblocks lie ahead. Tarrósy said he expected no such change to occur within the UN any time soon. The four nations wanting more say at the council already face opposition from countries that are regional rivals: India is being opposed by Pakistan; Germany by Italy and Spain; Japan by South Korea; and Brazil by Mexico, Colombia and Argentina. Instead, these countries want an expanded list of the rotating members. They propose 10 new elected seats, which would increase the number of council members to 25. African countries, through the African Union, also want the continent to get two permanent seats on the council. But any reform would need to be voted on by the five veto-wielding powers, which each have conflicting interests. For instance, Britain and France reportedly are willing to relax the membership structure while Beijing has proposed 10 new rotating members, opposing Japan and India’s bid for permanent seats. Meanwhile, Russia does not want its power diluted with the inclusion of new members. Other permanent members may also decide to vote selfishly to defend their own power and interests.