Written by Julie Yu-Wen Chen and Obert Hodzi.

Africa is currently being courted by both China and Japan. Rich in natural resources and a growing market, Africa is important to both East Asian economic giants. They have provided Africa with generous financial and economic development deals totalling over US$90 billion between December, 2015 and August 2016. The most recent move was from Japan. At the Sixth Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD) held in Kenya recently (the first time in Africa), Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced a US$30 billion public-private partnership to develop quality infrastructure, health systems and others in Africa.

Launched in 1993, TICAD is a platform established by the Japanese government in cooperation with the United Nations, World Bank, and the UN Development Programme to help develop Africa and promote peace and security. Although touted as the first multilateral initiative by an Asian power in the post-Cold War era, it was not until 2001 that a Japanese prime minister visited Africa (South Africa, Kenya and Nigeria). By that time, several Chinese premiers and presidents had visited Africa, and had launched the China-Africa Cooperation Forum in 2000 – giving China an ideological, diplomatic and political edge over Japan in Africa.

While one may see Japan’s move at TICAD as encroaching on China’s traditional foreign policy space in Africa, in quantitative terms China’s financial investments in Africa far exceed Japan’s. It is due to this fact that the Japanese are now emphasizing the “quality” of infrastructure rather than quantity. A subtle attack on Chinese infrastructure projects in Africa which are regarded to be of inferior quality. Japan can provide that high-end infrastructure, but cannot provide the amounts of money that China can.

Beyond economics, infrastructure and trade, Abe’s speech in TICAD reflected Japan’s grand strategy to re-assert itself as a global power with system-wide influence in global decision-making. Two issues featured prominently in his speech: (1) reform of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) and (2) strengthening of a rule-based maritime order. Both of these are an affront to China’s global power aspirations, and its maritime claims in the East and South China Sea.

In the run-up and immediately after TICAD, a number of commentaries from various media and think tanks suggested rising competition between China and Japan over Africa. This suggestion is understandable. One of the key motives behind Japan’s shifting interest toward Africa is related to its UNSC permanent membership ambitions. For this, Japan needs support and votes from African countries. On the other hand, China’s African engagement is related to its desire to consolidate its leadership in Africa and other developing countries. Given their complex relationship, it is likely that Japan and China’s African policies will clash as they strengthen their respective strategies to advance national interests.

It was Japan’s strategic intentions, rather than billions of dollars in development finance pledged, that China found unpalatable. The Chinese foreign ministry singled out Japan’s “selfish” attempt to “direct the topic and outcome documents of the conference towards the Security Council reform and maritime security issues.”

Regarding maritime issues, Abe had mentioned at TICAD that “what connects Asia and Africa is the sea lanes” and that Japan wants to work with African countries “in order to make the seas that connect the two continents into peaceful seas that are governed by the rule of law.” But, in a pre-emptive diplomatic offensive, it is worth noting that a few months before TICAD, China’s foreign ministry had announced that several African countries supported its South China Sea position. Sino-Japanese conflict has already, at least in its rhetorical form, spilled over into Africa.

Abe’s mission to woo Africa did not fail as China is inclined to spin it. In his opening speech, Shinzo Abe said that UNSC reform is “a goal that Japan and Africa hold in common. I call on everyone here to walk together towards achieving it. Can I have your approval of that?” The tacit approval was subtly granted because in his closing speech the Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta drew comparisons between TICAD VI and the Berlin Conference of 1884-5 that partitioned Africa into colonies.

To Kenyatta, TICAD VI marked a new era from the one where “solutions were prescribed without input of Africa’s people”, a complaint that African leaders have consistently made regarding the UNSC. Kenyatta then concluded by expressing hope that outcomes and declarations made at TICAD VI will bring “about the kind of transformative change we all long for.” The systemic transformation hoped for and undersigned by 54 African countries, Japan, 52 other partner countries and 74 international and regional organizations was the urgent reform of “UN bodies, including the Security Council” and “maintaining a rules-based maritime order in accordance with the principles of international law.”

In China and Japan’s bickering over which one best serves Africa’s interests, the marked silence of the majority of African leaders could easily be misconstrued as passivity and lack of agency. But, there is a method and strategy in that seeming docility. African leaders have perfected the art of extracting benefits from their patrons by pretending to support their ideas. For instance, from August 2014 to September 2016, African leaders (except those not invited) attended similar summits organized by the United States (US), Turkey, India, China and Japan – states that have varied national objectives and interests.

Despite agreeing to rules-based maritime order with Japan a few months before, more than 20 African countries including South Africa, Kenya and Ethiopia supported China’s claims to the South China Sea. African leaders are exploiting the Sino-Japanese rivalry to coax out as much financial and material support from them as possible. And they will continue paying lip service at summits as long as India, the US, Turkey, China and Japan have “goodies” to dispense.

Julie Yu-Wen Chen is Professor of Chinese Studies at the University of Helsinki in Finland, Hosting Professor of Asian Studies at Palacký University in Czech Republic and Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the China Policy Institute at the University of Nottingham in the United Kingdom. Obert Hodzi is postdoctoral researcher at the Department of World Cultures at the University of Helsinki in Finland. Image credit: CC by GovernmentZA/flickr.