Japan in Africa: From donor to business partner and the push to counter Chinese influence

Photo courtesy of www.finalcall.com
Photo courtesy of www.finalcall.com

By Greg Ryan

Japan’s engagement with Africa, particularly its development paradigm, is changing. If China’s influence can be countered in a manner that fosters African development rather than the political gain of Japan over China, Japan’s recent move from donor to business partner may prove to be one of the defining strategies to facilitate Africa’s growth into a global economic hub.

Africa is becoming a global engine of growth and a hugely important region for natural resources, trade and human capital. This is becoming increasingly apparent to the world’s major powers. Japan is no exception. Although strained by two decades of economic stagnation, it is the third largest economy in the world and is largely dependent on imports from abroad, particularly rare earths such as copper and cobalt, and on foreign markets for exporting industrial and consumer goods.(2) Resource-poor Japan has become increasingly dependent on oil and gas following the Fukushima nuclear disaster in March 2011 which led to the shutting down of almost all the nuclear reactors in the country (3) and this is a huge concern for the Japanese elite.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has recently adopted an aggressive and pro-active stance in foreign relations, diplomacy and engagement, particularly in Africa and Asia. His pledge of US$ 32 billion in the form of an assistance package for Africa, announced at the 2013 Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD),(4) and his visit in early 2014 to a number of African countries,(5) has heralded a new era in Japanese-African relations. It seems likely that Japan will be key in the continent’s transformation to a global commercial hub as it switches its focus from traditional aid donor to an economic partner interested in investment and development of trade relations.(6) This CAI paper explores Japan’s changing engagement with Africa — including the role of Sino-Japanese rivalry on the continent — particularly its changing development paradigm, and examines the impact it will have on the continent and on Japan’s own growth. Some argue that Japan’s recent push in Africa is simply representative of its aim to counter China’s soft power expansion globally, whereas others view the contrasting involvement of both countries as “playing different games” – China’s chiefly involving political influence and Japan’s being primarily economic in nature.(7)

The move from aid to investment and unscrambling of foreign policy confusion

In some respects there is a misconception regarding Japan’s modern engagement with Africa with commentators regarding this engagement as being relatively non-existent prior to the last three years. Japan’s current focus, seen by many as a strengthening of business ties and the boosting of private sector investment,(8) actually represents a changing development agenda, one which sees a move from the position of donor to business partner. Illustrated by the setting up of TICAD in 1993,(9) it is clear that Japan realised the importance of African markets even in the early 1990s, a time when the Japanese economy experienced a notable downturn and stagnation but more relevantly, a time when declining interest in Africa globally was brought about by the end of the Cold War. Due to the shrinkage of its economy and the increasing domestic budget deficit throughout the 1990s Japan had slashed its aid to Africa and its foreign policy lacked cohesiveness, which perhaps explains the misconception regarding Japan’s interest in the continent.

One of the primary catalysts for Japan’s renewed engagement with the continent is undoubtedly the Fukushima disaster. Japan’s recent drive for recovery, economic growth and expanded foreign policy is articulated through the slogan “nihon wo torimodosu” (take back Japan).(10) This can be viewed as symbolic vis-à-vis Japan’s African involvement. The assistance package announced at TICAD in 2013 (11) does not necessarily represent a new interest in or commitment to Africa but rather the re-igniting of a previous engagement or an unscrambling of what appeared to be confusion or ambivalence towards Africa, in the form of expanding the parameters in place previously through focusing on private sector investment (12) in addition to aid and development.

Stepping out of China’s shadow: Sino-Japanese rivalry in Africa

Despite China’s economy supplanting Japan’s to become the second largest in the world as recently as 2010 (13) and China’s expansion in Africa, arguably, largely taking place since only 2005,(14) it is obvious Japan lags far behind its Asian rival in the African stakes. The period between 2000 and 2013 saw an incredible increase in two-way trade between China and Africa jumping from US$ 10 billion in 2000 to US$ 170 billion in 2013.(15) In contrast, Japan’s trade stood at US$ 28 billion in 2011.(16)

The ubiquity of China’s minerals-for-infrastructure deals and its traditional non-interference policies have undoubtedly made it popular among the kleptocratic dictatorships still prevalent in Africa today. Unsurprisingly these aspects of Sino-African relations have been used by the Japanese and others as a political or moral stick to beat the Chinese with; accusations of colonial-style exploitation by way of the cheap acquisition of natural resources, lack of transparency with projects and the utilising of Chinese human capital rather than employing domestic African workers being among the chief criticisms levelled at the Chinese. An example of such criticism was seen in early 2014 when a spokesman for the Japanese government attacked China’s collusion with corrupt leaders, declaring that “countries like Japan…cannot provide African leaders with beautiful houses or beautiful ministerial buildings.”(17) The Prime Minister also appeared to take a jab at China, without mentioning the country expressly, when he promised that Japan would not “explore and dig resources simply to bring them to Japan.”(18)

China’s defence of its policies in many ways illustrates the perception of Japan’s evolving engagement in Africa. The labelling of Abe as “the biggest troublemaker in Asia” by the Chinese Ambassador to the African Union (19) could be viewed as China’s reckoning that Japan’s recent moves are designed to counter China’s soft power influence on the continent and are not the more altruistic or philanthropic endeavours as posited by the Japanese. The defence of the Prime Minister’s intentions by one of his senior officials in early 2014 (20) as he sought to downplay the rivalry between the two countries is an example of Japan’s reluctance to be perceived as competing for influence with China. The Chinese have also claimed that Japan is increasing its assistance to Africa as it is seeking support in securing a place in the United Nations Security Council (21) and they have declared that they do not approve of “certain countries that try to compete with others for their own interests and offer aid to Africa out of purely political motives”(22) – a barely disguised criticism at what they view as Japan’s chief motive behind its financial assistance to Africa. The latter criticism might well be directed at China or others if one were to omit the competition aspect: one may conjecture that political motives inevitably lie at the heart of most donations of aid or assistance, explaining why some countries donate to certain states rather than others, perhaps even when the economic environment may be weaker and require more aid in the latter.

Japan and China have a different modus operandi in Africa. Differentiating its assistance from China’s, Japan has set aside a portion of its assistance package for infrastructural development which is to be determined by the recipient nations, as opposed to prescribing projects for them. It has also promised to train 30,000 Africans to build the infrastructure rather than employing Japanese workers.(23) The lack of subtlety in distinguishing this from China’s usual operational methods – namely the tight control over projects and the utilising of Chinese labour on projects – would seem to highlight Japan’s obvious attempts to counter Chinese influence by attacking their Achilles heel in Africa. A further example can be seen in the invitation for 1,000 qualified Africans to intern at Japanese companies which contrasts to China’s offering of university scholarships; the message being that Japan is actively engaged in getting Africans into jobs.

Where does Japan go from here?

Despite Japan’s attempt to distinguish itself from China in Africa, it is, by and large, presently at a huge disadvantage if it is in fact seeking to counter its Asian rival’s influence throughout the continent. There are various examples where African countries have illustrated a preference for engaging commercially with China over Japan. Djibouti’s rejection of Japanese infrastructural development of its ports, favouring Chinese companies; Angola’s repair of the Port of Lobito which had been initially agreed with Japan and abandoned before the contract was given to China; and similarly in Tanzania where Japanese officials offered to repair Bagamoyo Port but were declined in favour of China who promised to turn the region into a special economic zone; are all illustrations of this.(24) It is important to note, however, that these occurred prior to the announcement of the African assistance package at TICAD 2013 and this may be vastly influential in propelling Japanese influence to a greater degree throughout the continent over the next few years.

As it stands, only 1% of Japan’s trade is with Africa;(25) however, it has a unique relationship with the continent through its leadership role in sponsoring extensive discussions with African leaders through the TICAD conferences held every five years in Tokyo. This will certainly bode well for an increasing engagement with African countries especially if Japan delivers on the promised assistance. Despite fears that the public-private partnerships between the Japanese government and businesses that are an important part of the country’s investment in Africa could result in efforts being redirected from humanitarian and security needs to commercial interests,(26) the US$ 32 billion assistance package is lauded by Africans as a great shift in Japanese-African relations. The fact remains that the largest portion of finance is still in the form of aid (27) (for example development aid through state entities such as the Japan International Co-operation Agency) despite some warnings that Japanese foreign policy is being hijacked by commercial interests. Fears such as these likely come from agreements such as the Enhanced Private Sector Assistance for Africa (EPSA) initiative (28) which explicitly support private sector development, however it is clear that Japan still sees humanitarian aid and peacekeeping as vastly important to Africa and this is reflected in the assistance package also.(29)

Japan is expanding its soft power through diplomacy, with embassies in 32 countries (30) and is generally viewed positively by Africans, largely escaping the label of neo-colonialist plunderer that has dampened Chinese efforts. Nevertheless, it has been one of the largest but least visible donors to Africa, practicing what some describe as the “softest of soft power,”(31) but this, the Japanese elite surely must hope, will change as the 2013 assistance package materialises in the years ahead. The evolving development paradigm espoused by Japan, if it can focus on sustainable rather than extractive development as it seems to aim to, does not appear to redirect focus on commercial interests to the detriment of humanitarian interests. Furthermore, if China’s influence can be countered in a manner that fosters African development rather than the political gain of Japan over China, Japan’s recent move from donor to business partner may prove to be one of the defining strategies to bring about Africa’s growth into a global economic hub through the early 21st century and beyond.


(1) Greg Ryan is a Research Associate at IOA with an interest in international relations. Contact Greg through IOA’s South African office (info@inonafrica.com). Edited by Nicky Berg. Research Manager: Claire Furphy.
(2) ‘China and Japan scramble for Africa’, Financial Times, 19 January 2014, http://www.ft.com.
(3) Kaneko, K., Sieg, L. and Sheldrick, A., ‘Japan pledges $32 billion aid for Africa to boost investment’, Reuters, 31 May 2013,http://www.reuters.com.
(4) Reynolds, I. and Hirokawa, T., ‘Abe offers $32 billion to Africa as Japan seeks resources access’, Bloomberg, 31 May 2013,http://www.bloomberg.com.
(5) The first Japanese leader to do so in eight years.
(6) Abe, S., ‘Japan’s 21st century engagement with Africa’, Africa Strictly Business, 14 January 2014, http://www.africastrictlybusiness.com.
(7) Tiezzi, S., ‘Africa: China and Japan’s next battleground?’, The Diplomat, 15 January 2014, http://thediplomat.com.
(8) Increased funding towards boosting peace and security throughout the continent demonstrates the understanding that trade cannot be effectively conducted in insecure environments on a sustainable basis. See ‘Japan’s Shinzo woos Africa with funds for peace and security’, Japan Times, 14 January 2014, http://www.japantimes.co.jp.
(9) A global forum between Japanese and African leaders held every five years in Tokyo. It is organised in conjunction with the UN, UNDP, the World Bank and the African Union Commission. The forum advocates African ownership of its development and its role as a partner in the international community. Japan’s initial involvement encompassed its role as aid donor and peacekeeper; however, as outlined in this paper, this role is evolving to include trade interests. For further details, see Sy, A., ‘Japan in Africa: A rising sun?’, Brookings, 14 January 2014, http://www.brookings.edu.
(10) Zhihai, X., ‘Japan and China race to invest in Africa’s natural resources’, Oilprice, 24 June 2013, http://oilprice.com.
(11) For a detailed outline of Japan’s US$ 32 billion assistance package for the period 2013-2017, see ‘Japan’s assistance package for Africa at TICADV’, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, http://www.mofa.go.jp.
(12) Almost half of the package is geared towards private sector infrastructure projects in the areas of transportation, education, farming, water sanitation and energy projects. A commitment to training 1,000 students via internship programmes in Japanese companies and an aim to create 30,000 jobs in Africa is outlined also. See ‘Japan to transform Africa aid into investment’, Deutsche Welle, 1 June 2013, http://www.dw.de.
(13) Fundira, T., ‘Japan-Africa trade at a glance’, Trade Law Centre for Southern Africa, 2011, http://www.paulroos.co.za.
(14) See ‘Spurring balanced African growth’, Japan Times, 4 June 2014, http://www.japantimes.co.jp.
(15) Kingston, J., ‘China’s million-migrant march into Africa’, The Japan Times, 16 August 2014, http://www.japantimes.co.jp.
(16) ‘Spurring balanced African growth’, Japan Times, 4 June 2014, http://www.japantimes.co.jp.
(17) See York, G., ‘Japan battles China for influence in Africa’, The Globe and Mail, 10 January 2014, http://www.theglobeandmail.com.
(18) Kakuchi, S., ‘Japan seeks to remake Asia-Africa relationship’, IPS News Agency, http://www.ipsnews.net.
(19) Monyae, D., ‘Japan, with one eye in China, asks what it can do for Africa’, BDLive, 24 January 2014, http://www.bdlive.co.za.
(20) Japanese senior official Hiroshigo Seko commented, “wherever he goes…Abe is asked if he is there to compete with China but that is not our intention at all, as far as African nations are concerned, they are important regardless of China.” See ‘Japan PM Shinzo Abe to pledge $14bn to Africa’, BBC, 9 January 2014, http://www.bbc.com.
(21) See Brown, A., ‘China and Japan trade words over Africa policies’, AFK Insider, 11 January 2014, http://afkinsider.com.
(22) See Bertumen, M., ‘China and Japan trade barbs over Africa policies’, Tokyo Weekender, 13 January 2014, http://www.tokyoweekender.com.
(23) Hayes, S., ‘Doing good Inc: Japan looks to curry favour in Africa’, U.S News and world Report, 5 June 2013, http://www.usnews.com.
(24) For more details, see Makino, Y., ‘At a disadvantage, Japan trails China in economic assistance to Africa’, The Asahi Shimbun, 28 May 2013,http://ajw.asahi.com.
(25) Ford, N., ‘Japan-Africa: Retying the knot’, African Business, 31 July 2014, http://africanbusinessmagazine.com.
(26) See Lehman, H., ‘Trade not aid behind Japan’s policy to Africa’, East Asia Forum, 27 July 2013, http://www.eastasiaforum.org.
(27) See ‘Japan increases its investments in Africa’, Indian Review of Global Affairs, 18 February 2014, http://www.irgamag.com.
(28) A multi-donor, multi-component initiative for resource mobilisation and development partnership to support the African Development Bank’s private sector development strategy. For more details, see ‘Japan loan deal to boost support for private sector projects in Africa’, Out-Law, 17 September 2014, http://www.out-law.com.
(29) Japan has committed to training 2,000 people in counter terrorism activities (see ‘Japan’s Shinzo Abe hails Africa as growth centre’, BBC, 3 June 2013, http://www.bbc.com) and has established a US$ 40 million maritime defence base in Djibouti, along with other peacekeeping mechanisms such as the increasing involvement in the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (see Taylor, J. and Walsh, M., ‘UN operations in Africa provide a mechanism for Japan’s military normalization agenda’, National Bureau of Asian Research, 7 January 2014, http://www.nbr.org).
(30) Quartey, L., ‘Japan’s FDIs to Africa hit $6 billion, keen to up trade’, Africa Report, 20 March 2013, http://www.theafricareport.com.
(31) Guest, P., ‘Japan takes on China far from home – in Africa’, Newsweek, 26 March 2014, http://www.newsweek.com.