Sino-Japan rivalry heats up over Africa

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe  on the sidelines of the G7 Summit in Taormina, Sicily, on May 26, 2017.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on the sidelines of the G7 Summit in Taormina, Sicily, on May 26, 2017.PHOTO: AFP

As Japan throws its weight behind the India-led Asia-Africa Growth Corridor initiative, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has taken the promotion of growth in Africa as a priority for the ongoing Group of Seven (G-7) summit in Italy.

"The pillar of Japan's cooperation is fostering human resources and industry in Africa," he wrote in an op-ed discussing the summit in the Huffington Post published this week.

Beyond Asia, many in Africa will "acquire new skills, improve their local infrastructure, deepen their connectivity and strengthen their self-reliance", he said. "No other country besides Japan, I believe, can make this contribution."

Issues surrounding the continent will be discussed at a G-7 outreach session today that will also involve leaders from Ethiopia, Kenya, Niger, Nigeria and Tunisia.

In the Asia-Africa Growth Corridor, Japan is teaming up with a key strategic ally that analysts say will counter China's rising influence in Africa, where Japan is losing out in development dollars but touting its quality infrastructure.

 

The corridor was first discussed at a bilateral summit between Mr Abe and his Indian counterpart, Mr Narendra Modi, held in Tokyo last year.

Dr Jeffrey Kingston, director of Asian studies at Temple University Japan, added the move was "clearly a counter to the OBOR as a way to contest Beijing's vision of connectivity and hegemonic ambitions".

Mr Modi, speaking on Tuesday at the launch of the African Development Bank annual meeting in Gujarat, India, said the initiative will promote cooperation across a wide range of sectors, including skill development, information technology, manufacturing, health and connectivity.

Japan, meanwhile, also organises the Tokyo International Conference on African Development, which last year was held in Africa for the first time. Mr Abe took with him about 200 companies to the event.

Compare this, however, with a Reuters poll this month showing that a vast majority of Japanese firms have no interest in participating in China's One Belt, One Road (Obor), which is also known as the Belt and Road initiative.

Mr Kenji Hiramatsu, Japan's ambassador to India, told the Asahi Shimbun: "There are moves being made by Japanese companies to utilise the personnel networks developed by India to make inroads into Africa."

Japan has been ambivalent about joining the Chinese-backed Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), which now has 70 members, that also serves as the financing arm of the Obor.

The AIIB is widely seen as a rival to the Japan-led, 67-member Asian Development Bank, though its chief, Mr Takehiko Nakao, said earlier this month that the two banks cooperate more than compete.

While Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party sent its second in command, Mr Toshihiro Nikai, to the Obor summit in Beijing this month, Tokyo has since maintained that it will only join the AIIB if issues over fair governance and transparency are addressed.

Mr Modi spoke about the Growth Corridor just one week after the OBOR summit that New Delhi chose to skip, angered by a project passing through Kashmir and Pakistan that it said compromised its sovereignty. That was not lost on analysts.

Research fellow Ippeita Nishida of think-tank Sasakawa Peace Foundation said: "While there are economic benefits with the huge market for infrastructure exports, this can be seen as a necessary reaction to the challenges posed by emerging powers like China."

Dr Jeffrey Kingston, director of Asian studies at Temple University Japan, said the move was "clearly a counter to the Obor as a way to contest Beijing's vision of connectivity and hegemonic ambitions".

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 27, 2017, with the headline 'Sino-Japan rivalry heats up over Africa'. Print Edition | Subscribe