By Keita Ikeda and Tomomi Asano / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WritersA focus on quality over quantity will be a signature element of Japan’s economic support for Africa in the coming years.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made this pledge, which includes assisting the development of human resources in industries that will support economic growth, in his keynote address at the seventh Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD), which opened in Yokohama on Wednesday. This approach is intended to differentiate Japan’s support from that of China, which has expanded its influence in Africa by extending huge loans to nations there, and help Japan’s diplomacy make up lost ground on the continent.
“We will do whatever it takes to assist the advancement of Japanese companies into Africa,” Abe said in an address that emphasized his resolve to contribute to Africa’s economic growth. “Human resource building is where Japan has invested the greatest amount of effort in Africa over the years.”
A key feature of this TICAD, which was held in Japan for the first time in six years, was its heavy tilt toward business elements, based on the circumstances of various African nations seeking support for their economic development. As well as providing a helping hand to economic growth in Africa, which has been dubbed the “21st century’s greatest frontier,” this aims to ensure both Japan and Africa can share the fruits of this support.
African nations responded favorably to these proposals. Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, one of the chairs of this TICAD, indicated his expectations for what stronger ties with Japan could deliver by saying this partnership with Africa was a true opportunity to obtain common benefits.
No numerical target
However, Abe refrained from mentioning a new specific numerical target for investment from Japan. He only went so far as to say that Japanese private investment in Africa had reached $20 billion (¥2.1 trillion) during the three years since the previous TICAD in 2016.
China’s presence in the background is one reason for this. Under its massive Belt and Road Initiative to create a China-centered economic zone, Beijing is making inroads into many African countries through huge infrastructure and other projects. Abe appears to have decided “Japan can’t beat China in terms of quantity,” a source close to the prime minister told The Yomiuri Shimbun.
Britain and France, which previously were colonial powers in Africa, also are keeping a watchful eye on China-led African development. At the summit meeting of the Group of Seven major nations held in France soon before TICAD, Abe went around to the other leaders to persuade them to support TICAD and confirmed they would work together on this issue. Japan plans to bolster its support for Africa through cooperation with third parties such as Britain, France and India.
Abe underlined that Japan’s assistance projects in Africa take place “on an extremely longtime axis.”
“One-off undertakings are exceedingly rare,” he added.
This illustrated his intention to promote projects that focus on quality support for African nations’ economic independence over the medium and long terms, as opposed to the Chinese style of offering huge investment in the short term.
Not testing loyalties
According to a senior Foreign Ministry official, China had been leaning on African nations behind the scenes before the seventh TICAD and urging them not to participate in the conference. Because some African nations have no option but to give careful consideration to their relations with China, the Japanese government insisted this was an “Africa-led” conference to avoid giving the impression this was a test of loyalty that required choosing between Japan and China, the official said.
Given that Japan-China relations have improved in recent times, consideration has been given to a proposal under which both nations would cooperate on African infrastructure projects. Abe also did not lob any direct criticism at China in his address.
Competing with China’s clout will not be easy. Japan has embassies in only 35 African countries, fewer than China has. Observers have pointed out that Japanese support will struggle to reach deeply into regions where the nation lacks an embassy.