Japan might not be able to rival China when it comes to exerting economic influence on the African continent, but analysts say Tokyo can offer an alternative model of development and compete with Beijing on providing infrastructure financing and good governance to international standards. While it may currently seem like Japan is eager to play catch up with China in Africa, they said it has in fact long been one of the most important actors on the continent. Late last month, at the eighth Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD) held in Tunisia, Japan pledged US$30 billion in public and private financial contributions to the continent over the next three years. The move has been widely seen as an attempt to exert economic and diplomatic influence in Africa and counter China’s standing. Speaking via video link, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida pledged to help Africa “urgently deal with issues such as … unfair and opaque development finance”, in what was interpreted as a swipe at China’s lending practices. Beijing has denied that it aims to catch countries in a “debt trap” with its Belt and Road Initiative , as Japan and other Group of 7 members have claimed, with a foreign ministry spokesman saying last month that “the so-called Chinese debt trap is a lie made up by the US and some other Western countries to deflect responsibility and blame”. China denies belt and road ‘debt trap lie’ as spending tops US$1 trillion Purnendra Jain, visiting senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Institute of South Asian Studies, said Japan can offer an alternative development model for Africa. “It is for the African nations to decide for themselves which models appeal to them and are in their national interest,” he said, adding that Japan was a player on the continent even before Beijing launched its Forum of China-Africa Cooperation in 2000. “It’s hard for Japan to compete with China in quantity terms, but Tokyo offers quality projects which are transparent in nature and in partnership with African nations,” Jain said. Tokyo applies international standards on infrastructure financing, it supports good governance and democratic principles Celine Pajon, French Institute of International Relations Celine Pajon, head of Japan research at the French Institute of International Relations’s Centre for Asian Studies in Paris, said while Japan could not match the amount China was pledging to Africa, Tokyo sought to differentiate itself from Beijing by insisting on quality in its approach to development lending. “Tokyo applies international standards on infrastructure financing, it supports good governance and democratic principles,” Pajon said, adding that Japan also focused on investing in human resources by providing training to African countries instead of exporting its workers like China does. The number of Chinese workers in Africa peaked at 263,659 in 2015, according to the John Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies’ China Africa Research Initiative (CARI), but the figure has steadily declined since then. By the end of 2020, it stood at 104,074 – down 43 per cent from the previous year – largely because of pandemic-related travel difficulties. Japan resumes its wooing of Africa, a counter to China’s efforts Japan can support Africa’s economic recovery from the pandemic by helping nations build up their fiscal autonomy and working to prevent sovereign and private debt defaults, Pajon said. “Rather than competing with China, Japan is trying to provide an alternative to what Beijing has to offer,” she said, adding that while the two countries’ investments in infrastructure are complementary, cooperation is not possible as China “does not consider international standards in its development practices”. “China’s economic expansion is progressing at the expense of human rights and good governance,” Pajon said, referring to civil society criticisms in recent years over China’s failure to promote good governance and human rights despite its strong economic presence on the continent. Pajon said Japan should continue to train African workers to take advantage of commercial opportunities, and expand its cooperation with third partners such as the European Union , India , Australia , and the United States . Kishida, in his address to TICAD last month, pledged support for African youth-led start-ups and said Japan would provide business, education, agriculture, and healthcare and medical training to 300,000 Africans over the next three years. Pajon said Tokyo could also use its expertise in renewable energy and electrical power to support Africa’s green energy transition through investment. Shinichi Takeuchi, director of the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies’ African Studies Centre, said Japan’s infrastructure building in Africa was much more expensive than that done by China. “That is why Japan tends to focus on the modernisation of existing infrastructure,” Takeuchi said, adding that the country’s “main challenge lies in the private sector, which has been reluctant to be engaged with Africa”. Japan Kishida promises US$30 billion in aid over next 3 years for Africa Japanese companies have long held misconceptions of Africa as a region bedevilled by rampant civil wars, with business leaders calling in recent years for firms to review their perceptions and overcome their reluctance to invest. Indeed, the number of Japanese companies operating in Africa rose from 169 in 2013 to 259 in 2019, according to Rama Yade and Tyrell Junius of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Centre, writing in a paper published on September 1. “It is in the field of innovation that these companies bring the most significant advantage compared to China, which is more focused on infrastructure,” they said, adding that Japan was right to “elevate its ambitions” in Africa. “It is a global power and can restore influence by leveraging its tremendous strengths in Africa”, they said, noting that Japan’s strengths in areas such as transport production and electronic equipment manufacturing could be better leveraged. “On a continent that has a critical need for creating jobs and transforming its economy, Japan can be a game-changer,” they added. ‘Nobody can nullify or deter China’s activities’ Japan’s recent US$30 billion pledge to Africa showed that it is “significantly conscious of China”, Takeuchi of the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies said. But he said TICAD, launched in 1993, also demonstrated that the country was and remains an important player on the continent. “Understanding TICAD only in the context of China-Japan rivalry is not correct,” Takeuchi said, adding that “nobody can nullify or deter China’s activities in Africa”. China invested US$148 billion in Africa between 2000 and 2018, according to CARI, and research by global management consulting firm McKinsey & Company showed that more than 10,000 Chinese-owned firms are currently operating on the continent, doing over US$2 trillion worth of business since 2005. Last year, China also promised US$10 billion in trade finance to support African exports and another US$10 billion in credit lines for financial institutions and in 2018 pledged US$60 billion in aid and loans to Africa. TICAD, which is convened every three years, was never conceptualised as a counter to China. Japan had already poured billions of dollars into building roads, power plants and ports in Africa long before China became a major player on the continent. But after Japan was hit by a period of economic slowdown, especially during the so-called lost decade from 1991 to 2001, it cut its development financing for overseas investment to concentrate on rebuilding its own economy. Jain from the National University of Singapore said that Tokyo has emphasised partnerships and human security – including the freedom from want and fear – in Africa. “Japan’s global healthcare initiatives also distinguish Tokyo’s approach to African development from other development actors,” Jain said. In his TICAD address, Kishida announced a record-breaking commitment to advance global health security, pledging up to US$1.08 billion towards The Global Fund to Fight Aids, Tuberculosis and Malaria – 30 per cent more than the country gave three years ago. He also called for a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council for Africa and said Japan would continue to push for one when it becomes a non-permanent member in 2023-24.