Doing Good Inc.: Japan Looks to Curry Favor in Africa

Japan seeks to counter Chinese influence by being a benevolent African investor.

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Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, left, greets Kenya Deputy President William Ruto prior to their bilateral talks during the Tokyo International Conference on African Development in Yokohama, near Tokyo, Saturday, June 1, 2013.

Stephen Hayes is president and CEO of the Corporate Council on Africa.

The term "The Great Game" was originally used to describe the British Empire's competition with the Russians for control of the the "Stans," including Afghanistan, in the mid-1800s. Various players have come and gone in the region, but what has held true is that no one really seemed to control it except for the tribes and warlords that have prevailed throughout the last several hundred years and even now.

But now it seems the next Great Game has begun in earnest in Africa, as Japan has joined the chase, largely, it would seem, out of fear of China's extraordinary inroads on the continent this past fifteen years. Its other regional rival, South Korea, has also made significant gains, enough to alarm Japan out of its complacency. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced last week at the Fifth Tokyo International Conference on African Development a $32 billion dollar fund for Africa, trumping China's recent announcement of $20 billion dollars in loans for Africa. Abe told the Africans that they, not the donor, would decide how to use the fund and on what projects.

As China's leadership had done in 2010, Abe met with each of the more than forty African heads of state that attended the conference. Each leader was given no less than fifteen minutes of face time with the latest supplicant for African business, and each had the opportunity to also make his case as to why some of that Japanese largesse should be placed in his or her respective country.

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Abe took great pains to differentiate Japanese assistance from that of the Chinese without ever saying the word "China." For instance, he set aside one-fifth of the pledge to infrastructure development, to be determined by the nations receiving the aid themselves, and promised to train 30,000 Africans to help them operate what they would build. This was a not so subtle differentiation from the Chinese, who generally maintain tight control of their projects and bring a Chinese workforce along with them. That work force often stays in Africa once the work is done, a growing source of tensions in some countries already.

Instead of scholarships to Chinese universities, as the Chinese had provided in its aid package, Abe will invite 1,000 qualified Africans to work as interns in Japan in order to get management training before returning to Africa. Again, the message is that Japan will provide jobs for Africans and will provide training for them. 

Japan also promised to promote "universal" basic health services throughout the continent. It remains to be seen what this means in terms of aid and training, but to suggest basic health care for all Africans can only bring positive attention to Japan. How a Japanese-style public health care system can be developed in Africa remains to be seen, however.

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All of Africa will not directly benefit from Japan's aid, as Abe, with the counsel of the Keidanren, Japan's premier business lobby, will select ten countries on which to focus. East Africa will certainly be an area of focus, and particularly Kenya, with its port of Mombasa as one of the key ports of the Indian Ocean.  

Somalia may also be another of the ten, as Japan wants to take on piracy issues, partly in order to rationalize the development of a Japanese navy. If they are successful, the port of Mombasa will be vital to that plan, as will the development of a rail system throughout East Africa that will connect goods to the port. It is noteworthy that an emphasis on East Africa may dovetail with the U.S. government's decision to focus on the East Africa Community, with special focus on Tanzania.

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Japan's new appeal to Africa is not altruistic. Few things in international relations are. Japan is desperately seeking stable energy supplies and is moving away from nuclear energy. Africa's growing resources in natural gas, especially in the East Africa region, are especially important to Japan's future. And if they are successful in tapping these supplies for Japan, Abe wants clear unfettered sea lanes, and for that reason he has also made the elimination of piracy in Africa a high priority. This is another reason Somalia has been noted a prime prospect for Japanese aid.  

Abe also asked for Africa's support for Tokyo as the host of the 2020 Olympics, a vote that will be taken next year. (Look for the African nations who sit on the International Olympic Committee board to be under consideration for aid as well.) He also asked for a safe and free business environment so that Japanese companies could invest for the long-term on the continent. This is a refrain that African nations can expect to hear more and more as the aid is parceled out. The stronger the business environment the more likely the support from Japan.

This, of course, has not gone unnoticed by China and Korea, Japan's primary rivals in East Asia. Neither have Abe's political leanings to the right or his desire to rebuild and strengthen Japan's regional influence. What each country will now do in its engagement with Africa remains to be seen, but one thing is for sure: it will be interesting, and the Great Game, 21st century style, is definitely on.

  • Read Larry Hanauer and Lyle Morris: U.S. and China Aren't Playing a Zero-Sum Game in Africa
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