Last week, a colleague of mine wrote an article which detailed some points made by Yun Sun, a nonresident fellow at the Africa Growth Initiative in her recent article titled, “Rising Sino-Japanese Competition in Africa.” During the Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD VI) held in Nairobi, Kenya this past year, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pledged that Japan would invest $30 billion by the year 2018.

This pledge, however, was interpreted as a call for competition with China, who has invested heavily in the region. China’s perception could not have been made clearer when Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying stated that Japan “attempted to impose its wills on African countries to gain selfish interests and drive a wedge between China and African countries” during a press conference on August 29th.

What accounts for China’s concern of Japanese competition in Africa?  China already dwarfs Japan in terms of pledges to Africa, with China having pledged some $90 billion since 2012 and Japan pledging about $62 billion since 2013. First of all, timing plays a key role. With the Philippines v. China arbitration case being decided in the Philippines’ favor, China, uncharacteristically vocal about the decision, sees Japan’s pledge as a timed slight at China’s relationship with its global partners. The South China Sea issue could shake up China relationship with littoral nations in South East Asia, most of which have strong trade relations with China. Furthermore, under these shaky circumstances, China then observes Japan attempting to pull away China’s African partners. The order of events certainly suggests something more than mere coincidence.

To further strain their relationship, who else but Shinzo Abe decides to announce Japan’s growing interest in Africa but Shinzo Abe? Abe’s reputation in China is not well received. From reinterpreting Japan’s Constitution to allow for more military flexibility and joining the United States and India in its annual Malabar exercises, to honoring the Yasukuni Shrine, he has created tension in both action and rhetoric. Few can forget the (hilarious) body language of Abe and China’s Xi Jinping in a photograph at the 2014 APEC summit.


However, China’s perception of Japan’s increased aid and investment in Africa is not totally unfounded. In a Japan Times article explaining Abe’s pledge, the author made it clear that Japan had its eye on China. “Japan hopes that quality will trump quantity in the battle against cash-rich China for influence on the continent” the article said.

Sadly, it appears that altruism is the last thing on these countries’ minds as Japan and China have elected to use competitive and hostile rhetoric toward each other in trade and investment matters in Africa. This is unfortunate, as there is an array of opportunities for cooperation between China and Japan in Africa as Japan begins focusing its investments on “quality” as opposed to China’s “quantity.”

China as global leader

Rather than being threatened by Japanese competition in Africa, China should recognize the reality that it has become a global leader in Africa’s development. China has taken the lead in Africa and is inspiring other countries, like Japan and India, to invest in Africa. China has changed the way the world sees aid and investment in Africa as China has focused more on infrastructure building rather than the poverty relief that defines Western aid. With China taking the lead with infrastructure-oriented aid, it seems that the global community is watching and following suit.

This China model of aid is also more like to relax interpretation of Asian involvement in Africa as a new “scramble for Africa” as Asian countries are acting more as partners than potentates. This is much more apparent in the general warmth of African leaders to seeking infrastructure focused development with China. China should not fear Japanese aid and investment as a way to influence the continent away from China. China should remember that Japan once took an investment strategy toward newly opened China, a country where Japan obviously does not pull the political strings. While an apparent field for Sino-Japanese competition, Africa seeks to benefit (or suffer) the most depending on how China and Japan chooses to behave with one another.

As He Wenping, an African Studies expert at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, argues, there is a chance for complementary investment of both Japan and China in Africa, with each country focusing on its own strengths to develop the region. This could also lay the groundwork for potential cooperation between the two in the continent.

Ian Pilcher reminds us that “the important thing to remember is that responsible contributions from both China and Japan, or any country for that matter, will do more to benefit the continent than pointing fingers at one another.” While competition could serve to benefit Africa, conflict would only deter the opportunities the continent would hope to gain. For this reason, China and Japan must ensure stability in the continent in order to promote future development.

“Our struggle for development,” said Chad President Idriss Deby during TICAD, “cannot succeed without peace, stability and, above all, security.”

It would seem the age of condescending Western-style aid in Africa is coming to a close, stemming from a seeming lack of efficacy in return. In turn, Asia’s model for aid to Africa, bolstered by infrastructure, investment, and development, while not reaching out to the target population of Africa’s impoverished, seems to be taking a stronger foothold in in recent years as Asian and African leaders act more as partners rather than the benefactor-beneficiary relationship that has defined Western aid.

By inspiring other Asian nations to invest in Africa, China has become a leader of investment-driven aid to Africa. Rather than seeing growing Japanese and Indian aid and investment in the continent as an affront to China’s current involvement, China should recognize that it has become a virtual leader in the continent. However, the next steps will greatly impact Africa’s future, as Sino-Japanese relations in Africa have the potential to either expedite Africa’s development, or weaken the continent as a whole. This will be the true test of China’s ability to lead.

By Aaron Walayat, USCNPM Contributor, 13 September 2016