Tokyo’s holistic approach to Africa needs to be applauded

A Ministerial meeting attended by representatives from 52 African nations was held ahead of the 7th Tokyo International Conference for African Development (TICAD) to be held in Yokohama in August 2019.

TICAD (which is co-hosted by the Government of Japan, The UNDP, World Bank Group and African Union Commission) was launched over two decades ago, in 1993, with the main objective being to bring back global interest in Africa (a number of key geopolitical developments, such as the end of the Cold War, had resulted in the global community shifting its focus away from Africa).

In the past two decades, TICAD forum has played a key role in Africa’s development. In recent years, the government of Japan has contributed to Africa’s development in a number of important areas. In the phase between 2008-2013, for example, the Government of Japan built a number of elementary and middle schools, upgraded healthcare and medical facilities, and also provided drinking water to rural villages.

During the last TICAD event, in 2016, held at Nairobi (Kenya), Japanese PM Shinzo Abe had committed $30 billion in assistance over a period of three years for key areas such as infrastructure and health care.

Beijing would be closely observing the recent meeting for a number of reasons.

First, the Japanese Foreign Minister, Taro Kono, unequivocally stated that while Japan was keen to contribute to Africa’s growth story, it was concerned about the level of debts being incurred by Africa, and was, as a result, cautious with regard to extending loans.

Second, while helping Africa in infrastructural development, Japan made it clear that it would want the local population to benefit economically, and was keen that the local population also learns how to maintain the infrastructure.

Third, Japan reiterated the point that it wanted to assist Africa in the sphere of health care and disaster management.

Both sides also agreed that people-to-people contact and linkages between Africa and Japan would be beneficial. African leaders categorically stated that Africa welcomes Japanese investments, since they benefit the continent in a number of ways.

It is not just economic linkages and connectivity, as Japan also said that it is keen to connect Africa with Asia and make it part of the Free and Open Indo Pacific Strategy. It would be pertinent to point out that New Delhi and Tokyo are working jointly in the ‘Asia-Africa growth corridor’ with a view to enhance connectivity between Africa and Asia, and also propel economic growth.

During his address at TICAD Forum in 2016, Shinzo Abe too had spoken about the need for connecting Asia with Africa, while highlighting Japan’s role. Said Abe:

Japan bears the responsibility of fostering the confluence of the Pacific and Indian Oceans and of Asia and Africa into a place that values freedom, the rule of law, and the market economy, free from force or coercion, and making it prosperous.

The TICAD meeting came a month after the Forum on Africa and China Cooperation, where China had committed $60 billion for Africa’s growth. Chinese President Xi Jinping had made it a point to address skepticism with regard to China’s relations with Africa, specifically in terms of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The Chinese President stated that Beijing wanted BRI to be a win-win for all, and China had no intentions of interference in the internal affairs of Africa. Recent articles in the Chinese media have spoken about the importance of ties between China and Africa, and have made veiled references to the need for Chinese entrepreneurs to understand local cultures better.

Japan clearly has no such perception problem in Africa like China.

Japan is keen to assist Africa in its growth story and Japan’s JICA (Japan International Cooperatio Agency), which coordinates Japan’s overseas assistance, has provided assistance for crucial infrastructural projects in Africa – in a low key manner. This includes assistance to Ugandan government for the construction of the Kampala Metropolitan transmission line, and for generating electricity from the Karuma Dam. In July 2017, JICA signed a $112 million loan for assisting in infrastructural development around Mombasa Port (Kenya). In Tanzania (Dar Es Salaam), JICA has been providing assistance for crucial projects like Tanzania Zambia Railway (TAZARA) Flyover Bridge and construction of a four-kilometre, six lane, Mwenge-Morocco highway.

Japanese businesses, too, are beginning to look at Africa as a favored destination. As of 2017, 795 Japanese corporations were operating in Africa.

Car makers like Nissan and Toyota, seeing the increasing demand for vehicles, are beginning to expand their sale networks as well as manufacturing facilities.

Competition for China

It is clearly evident that China is likely to face competition in Africa, and Japan has a proven track record, not just of providing generous financial assistance, but also building world class infrastructure, without creating too much hype. Japanese-funded projects like TAZARA, which was discussed earlier, have been appreciated. Tokyo’s role in Africa is all the more important given the fact that the US is not doing much to counter China’s growing presence in Africa.

It is important for Japan to join hands with other countries, especially India (the Asia Africa growth corridor where India and Japan are likely to work together is an important step in this direction), for achieving the goal of making Africa part of the ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’. Tokyo needs to be complimented for adopting a holistic approach towards Africa, and also being candid with regard to the continent’s economic and political challenges. Japan’s involvement in Africa is likely to be beneficial for both Tokyo as well as Africa.

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