Author: Céline Pajon, French Institute of International Relations
Laying the foundation for the Eighth Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD), Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi held talks on 28 March 2022 with ministers from 50 African nations. Hayashi expressed concerns that the COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine had increased the economic and social vulnerabilities of African countries — deepening their dependence on China. He subsequently committed to increase Japan’s cooperation with Africa.
Japan’s economic diplomacy in Africa pursues both economic and geopolitical objectives. Japan aims to catch up with other Asian and Western actors, moving from a focus on official development assistance to a private investment-based approach. It is also in competition with China, aiming to provide an alternative to the Belt and Road Initiative in Africa.
Tokyo’s support for private business was outlined by Foreign Minister Hayashi as the first of three priorities for the upcoming TICAD in July, and the second Japan–Africa Public–Private Economic Forum has just been held in Nairobi. Beyond this, Japan’s engagement with the African continent is likely to be strengthened in a more political and strategic way.
Japan is concerned that the pandemic will weaken African economies and worsen their dependence on Chinese aid and investment. Tokyo plans to help Africa’s recovery from COVID-19 by preventing sovereign and private debt defaults and building up the fiscal autonomy of African nations. Japan’s policy also promotes international norms of transparency and sustainability in infrastructure financing.
Japan’s policy is part of a balancing strategy vis-a-vis Beijing. Tokyo sees China’s economic expansion as progressing at the expense of human rights and good governance, enabling Beijing to leverage support on key issues like territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
The war in Ukraine is another incentive for Tokyo to step up its cooperation with Africa. African countries were divided over condemning Russia’s invasion — only 28 out of 54 African countries voted in favour of the UN resolution demanding Moscow immediately end its illegal use of force in Ukraine. It is essential for Tokyo that African countries — holding a significant number of UN votes — support a rules-based order and condemn the use of illegal force.
Concerned that the vote could foreshadow tacit African support for a Chinese takeover of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands or Taiwan, Tokyo is stepping up its diplomatic efforts to influence African partners. Japan also fears that some African countries are interested in enhancing security cooperation with China, after Russia — their traditional military partner — was hit by sanctions. As China expands its military footprint in Africa, recent reports mention the possibility of further Chinese military bases being constructed on the continent after its Djibouti facility was established in 2017.
Reinforcing ties with Africa also allows Japan to advance its soft power internationally. The pandemic highlighted a core concept of Tokyo’s development assistance policy, human security, giving Japan the opportunity to communicate its long-time commitment to health governance. Tokyo previously showcased its medical technology and products by sharing them with African partners through the UN Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) in 2019.
By actively engaging African countries, Tokyo also seeks to gain support for its proposal to reform and become a permanent member of the UN Security Council (UNSC). After it was unable to effectively sanction Russian aggression, plans to expand the UNSC have been revived.
Deepening its ties with Africa is also necessary for Japan to diversify its supply of energy and mineral resources. Tokyo recently announced the phasing out of Russian oil imports and further sanctions might endanger future Russian LNG imports. Japanese companies have made plans to turn old LNG tankers into floating offshore LNG production bases to cut costs. These floating production sites could be built off the coast of Africa, perhaps near Mozambique — a key country for Japan’s investment in LNG supply and infrastructure.
Supporting activities in Africa also gives Japan the opportunity to expand cooperation with partners such as the European Union. The EU recently committed to increase economic aid and investment in Africa — with an eye on China. Tokyo and Brussels could take advantage of their 2019 Partnership on Sustainable Connectivity and Quality Infrastructure, with trilateral business initiatives being actively discussed as cooperative schemes through which to facilitate joint Japan–EU–African private investment.
For all these reasons, it is likely that Japan will expand its commitment in Africa in a more pragmatic way. The rhetoric about a rivalry with China has created misguided expectations about Japanese investment and misrepresents the reality of Japanese cooperation with African partners. The politicisation of economic cooperation with Africa has caused frustration, particularly in the Japanese business community.
Japan should continue to promote balanced development assistance based on quality — rather than quantity — train personnel to take advantage of commercial opportunities, and expand its cooperation with third partners such as the EU, India, Australia and the United States.
Céline Pajon is Head of Japan Research at the French Institute of International Relations and Senior Researcher in the Japan Program at Vrije Universiteit Brussels.
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