China-Japan tussle over winning the allegiance of African nations is not a new story. Two countries have been involved in a hidden propaganda battle against each other in African turf for quite some time, though it never had spilled over to open surface, most likely for the sake of maintaining diplomatic decency. However, gone are those days of self restraint and the matter is no longer being kept hidden from public eye. This particular issue had been one of the major Japanese concerns that attracted the attention of the press at the just concluded 7th Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD).
The three-day conference that wrapped up last Friday in the Japanese city of Yokohama with the adaptation of a joint declaration and an action plan pledging wider participation of Japanese private sector business in African development was attended by high level delegations from around 50 African countries, including heads of states and governments of over 30 nations. The Yokohama Declaration and the Yokohama Action Plan 2019, which were drafted by Japan, were adapted at the final plenary session by applause after Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, asking the delegates to do so, said in his concluding speech, “I would like to move forward with the solemn process of adopting these outcome documents together with you. I would ask those of you who support the adoption of these documents to kindly applaud.”
Responding to his call, the house joined the host in applauding the initiative and thus Japan eventually achieved what the Japanese government wanted to get. The declaration included veiled criticism of China’s aggressive involvement in infrastructure projects in Africa as it called for ensuring quality infrastructure investment throughout the continent. Moreover, the document also noted African leaders’ willingness to take note of Abe’s free and open Indo-Pacific initiative calling for freedom of navigation and rules-based order in the sea. This initiative is seen as one of Abe’s carefully crafted efforts to counter China’s growing influence across Asia and beyond. Thus, what until now had been a matter of speculation has come into surface through the Yokohama Declaration. The ongoing tussle between the two Asian economic giants for winning over Africa has now taken the shape of a more open form of hostility and how it is going to shape the development process of Africa in near future remains to be seen.
Africa is seen these days as a continent of vast potential. The continent’s untapped reserves of mineral and natural resources and maintenance of a relatively healthy economic growth along with expanding population makes it a lucrative region for those willing to take advantage of the situation. China had been the first country to realize this future prospect and had been actively engaged with Africa for more than two decades. Many of continent’s infrastructure projects are not only financed by China, but also being constructed by Chinese companies, whereas Chinese experts are all over the continent advising governments on matters ranging from trade and development to commerce and investment.
Although Japan realized the potential benefit of being engaged with Africa more or less at the same time China did so, Tokyo had been slow to take specific action for moving over to Africa. The Yokohama Declaration had clearly shown that Japan is no longer willing to follow the same laid back approach and ready for prompt action that would allow the country to gain a foothold in the continent that would give Japan relative advantage to counter China. However, for Japan it is not going to be an easy task in any count, as Chinese presence in Africa is virtually ubiquitous and Africa’s dependence on China is far reaching. Hence, Japan’s official understanding is that, the country has no other option but to take a different approach to undermine China. One is to portray Japanese infrastructure projects as well as commodities and services provided by China as inferior in quality compared to those of Japan. The 7th TICAD Conference also had a larger focus on quality infrastructure that Japan claims to be dependable and long lasting, the qualities that Tokyo proclaims would compensate for their relatively higher cost.
The second point that that Japan stressed upon at Yokohama TICAD conference was that of African nations’ vulnerability of falling into Chinese debt trap. Speaking at a plenary session on the second day of the conference, Abe said “a country that is deeply indebted is a country difficult for you to penetrate.” To help African nations solving this problem, Abe revealed a plan to dispatch Japanese experts to 30 African countries, who will train local officials in charge of sovereign debt the art of debt and risk management.
However, this last point of Japan’s focus of interest came under immediate scrutiny of the media and concerned bodies who find it ironic that Japan, being a country neck-deep in snowballing government debt, is now poised to teach African officials the art of managing debt. It is no secret that Japan occupies the top position in the list of world’s most indebted countries. According to official data released by Japan’s ministry of finance, country’s national debt hit a record 1,105,435.3 billion yen at the end of June. Per capita debt came to about 8.91 million yen, whereas debt ratio to GDP was 236 percent, thus making Japan most indebted nation in the world.
It is highly unlikely that the country can ever repay such huge amount of debt, which is certain to increase further with the gradual shrinkage of revenue income along with declining population. However, unlike other highly indebted countries like Greece, Japan most likely will not face the danger of economic meltdown as most of the Japanese debts are internal. Even so, critics are already pointing out that teaching African nations how to manage sovereign debt while the country herself is deeply submerged in debt is nothing but a ploy to outsmart China. In addition, some in Japan have already started suspecting if Tokyo could ever compete with China in terms of the amount channeled into Africa or in terms of penetration of state and private sector companies throughout the continent. Nearly 4,000 Chinese firms are reportedly doing business in Africa and around a million Chinese are living there. As for Japan, there are only 800 locations where Japanese companies have their offices and number of Japanese residing in the continent count merely 8,000. So, despite all the rhetoric vibrating at the conference hall in Yokohama, the completion remains highly uneven.
(Tokyo, September 2, 2019)