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Japan Intensifies Engagement In Africa

Japan Intensifies Engagement In Africa

Japan has been a stable and appreciated partner for many African countries, but it redefined its presence on the continent with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s recent three-nation trip.

Abe’s trip to Africa, coupled with the fifth Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD V) held in June in Yokohama, signal an intensification of Japan’s decades-long partnership with the continent.

As Japan intensifies engagement in Africa, the Japanese private sector is pushing the government to provide support for expanding involvement in Africa.

Japan’s primary objective is to reposition itself both in an Afro-Asian context and in the global politico-economic arena. This creates policy implications for rival powers, in particular China.

Japan wants to maintain the status quo, demonstrating that it still is a contemporary great power, intending to keep its agenda-setting power in international forums.

“A feeling of emotional rivalry has rapidly grown in these days, particularly after the border problem of Senkaku islands (known as Diaoyu islands in China), thus dangerously raising the tension between the two countries,” said Prof. Shinichi Takeuchi of the African Studies Group at the Institute of Developing Economies in Tokyo, in an AFKInsider interview.

The U.S. does not want this tension between China and Japan and wants to keep a balance as part of its “pivot to Asia.” According to Takeuchi, the strained political relationship “does not rise because of external instigation. Fundamentally, it comes from the rapid growth of the Chinese state and the power shift this change causes.”


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Denise A. O. Kodhe is executive director of the Institute for Democracy and Leadership in Africa, a regional think tank based in Nairobi, Kenya.

“The tour of the Japanese prime minister to Africa is timely and strategic in the sense that Japan is trying to counter China’s influence,” Kodhe told AFKInsider. “It is also a mission to strengthen the Japanese position in Africa as a partner.”

Abe made stops in Mozambique, Ivory Coast and Ethiopia.

Kenya is a leading recipient of Japanese aid and technical cooperation support, and in light of this, “ignoring Kenya during his visit sent the message that perhaps it is not business as usual with the ongoing criminal cases at The Hague Kenyan leaders need to face,” Kodhe said.

The general development program in Mozambique is one of the flagship projects Japan finances. The Nacala Corridor Development Programme is a complex triangular project in cooperation with Brazil. It has the potential to become a regional Specific Economic Zone – often called growth corridor – developed around key natural resource investments and associated infrastructure, according to the Japan International Cooperation Agency.

Besides promoting poverty reduction, “Japan has strong incentives to act for the benefit of Japanese private companies,” Takeuchi said.

With TICAD V, Japanese business interests have been put high on the agenda. “As other countries, pursuing the national interests is one of the critical motivations for Japanese diplomacy in Africa,” Takeuchi said.

TICAD V was held under the motto, “Hand in Hand for a More Dynamic Africa,” and discussed six major elements of a new roadmap in the form of the Yokohama Action Plan 2013-2017. Private sector-led growth and accelerated infrastructure development were mentioned first and foremost to be supported by Japan. The action plan renewed Japan’s original twin principles of African ownership and international partnership.

The nature of TICAD has changed since its launch in 1993, stressing the importance of the business sector, private companies and the concept of public-private partnerships in light of Japan’s national interest. The Japanese private sector is pushing the government to provide support for its expanding involvement in Africa.

Some well-known examples include Toyota, which made a series of large investments in South Africa, or Mitsubishi with its big project on aluminium refining in Mozambique, or even Ajinomoto, a food processing company with a long history in Nigeria.

The most active Japanese companies in Kenya, according to Kodhe, are in the areas of trade, exporting cut flowers, coffee, tea, nuts and fish fillets to Japan, and importing motor vehicles, steel and machines from Japan. Toyota Tsusho, the trading arm of the Toyota Group, is implementing the extension of the Olkaria geothermal plant in the Hell’s Gate National Park in consortium with South Korea’s Hyundai Engineering & Construction. Toyota is also doing a detailed design study of the pipeline project from Juba, South Sudan to the coastal town of Lamu in Kenya.

African economies continue to grow alongside a rapid increase in Chinese engagement along with other emerging countries (India, Brazil, Korea, Turkey, to name a few). “Many Japanese, particularly policymakers, strongly feel the necessity to deepen the relationship with Africa,” Takeuchi said.

As of today, TICAD is more related to business than to aid. The Japanese government tries to balance aid with encouraging Japanese (private) companies to enter the African markets.

Dr. Istvan Tarrosy was a Fulbright scholar in 2013 at the Center for African Studies, University of Florida. He was a Japan Foundation Fellow in Kyoto and Tokyo in 2010, and since then has developed a deep research interest in this system of foreign relations. He is assistant professor and director of the Africa Research Center at the University of Pecs, Hungary.