The Sixth Tokyo International Conference on Africa’s Development (TICAD) was held in Nairobi in late August, and elicited heightened geopolitical debate. Established in 1993, this was the first TICAD conclave convened in Africa, a development whose significance was not lost on observers as was the suit of Japanese largesse pledged for the continent. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s promise of $30 billion in economic aid and deals is perhaps the peak of Japan’s commitment to Africa. Symbolism was on hand as more than 30 African heads of state and government graced the occasion.
Rather than being assessed in linear fashion as Japanese and African leaders converging to chart a common agenda, the conclave has been seen as Japan seeking to supplant China in Africa. This competitive narrative is borne out by a huge corpus of headlines interpreting the event as Japan’s challenge to China in Africa and China seeking to fend off the challenge. Regardless of the agreements reached between Japan and African leaders, the event is seen as a tussle between the two Asian powers with the continent as the playing field.
The particularly strident criticism levelled at Japan has come from Chinese sources, suggesting that Japan is intent on rolling out “chequebook diplomacy” and therefore “sowing discord” in Africa, considered “China’s second continent”. While economic angling is seen as a key objective, wider global influence-seeking originating from their East Asia rivalry have been fingered.
From one perspective, Japan’s boosting of its engagement with Africa constitutes good tidings for a continent in need of more, not less funding and investment. Reliant on the West for long, Africans have seen fluctuation of support from the West, most notably during and after the global financial crisis when funding dried up. Fortuitously, the fizzling out of aid and financing from Western sources coincided with China’s rise and eventual pole position as the continent’s economic partner. Over the past couple of months, China has faced its own domestic economic challenges that have impacted the continent, particularly affected resources-reliant economies such as Zambia, Angola and Nigeria that had become accustomed to exports to China. Japan’s reinvigorated African agenda may well plug some of the economic gaps arising out of China’s economic recalibration. While China has not lost and is unlikely to lose its pole position on the continent, Japan’s entry can serve as a means of Africa’s diversification of global partners – China and the West included – to hedge against the ebbs and flows in their fortunes.
A connecting thread can be made between the scramble for Africa that begun in earnest with the 1884 partition of the continent by European powers to the current tussling between China and Japan. In the post second world war period, the West led by the US and the East led by Russia battled for influence under the so-called cold war frame. China’s powerful entry onto the continent in the 2000s saw to the West’s response touching off a new scramble for Africa. Largely a bystander in the new and more sophisticated round of “scrambling”, Japan has now thrown its hat in the ring. Indeed, it is not just Japan that is joining the West and China in the scramble but other emerging powers notably India, Turkey, Brazil, South Korea and Malaysia. African policymakers and thinkers should therefore not be blindfolded by the China-Japan tiff but look these powers with unapologetic self-interest. In so doing, African countries at individual and at the continental levels would do well to appreciate that the key interest of their suitors is economic benefit at home.
Economic interest being the overriding prize, African countries need to appreciate the fact that they poses an arsenal of advantages that they can leverage to fully benefit from global powers interested in their resources. In the case of China and Japan, it is instructive that their regional rivalry has become a matter of international interest. For instance, Sino-Japan maritime clashes over the East China Sea have ended up at the international court of justice at The Hague and Japan has long sought a permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council. Africa is crucial in these respects because, with a UN membership of 54, it commands voting prowess in international instruments, one of the key factors motivating the scramble. Rather than being sucked into rivalry between the Asian giants, a realist approach is for Africa to coax the best economic deal from the influence contenders in return of lending support in their international bidding wars. This realist approach should indeed inform the continent’s engagement with other powers.
It would be ideal for China and Japan to fight their wars in their backyard without involving Africa. It would be objective for Africa not to take sides in a battle that is not theirs, not to fight a war that is not theirs – strictly speaking. The reality however is that in a globalized world, Africa cannot wish away competition between Japan and China and indeed other world powers. Africa needs to go to the drawing to craft and implement strategies that begin from and are focused on the continent’s interests as the basis for engagement with China and Japan (and other powers). The alternative is for the continent to remain a theatre for wars that are not its own to the detriment of its economic wellbeing.