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Japan’s Africa policy: Power struggle in ‘the rising star’


Since the second half of the 21st century, Africa has been one of the most important pillars of Japanese foreign policy, both as a raw material source and as an export market

After the 8th Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD) held recently in Tunisia, all eyes turned to Japan’s activities as an actor in the resource-rich African continent.

TICAD is a series of conferences, the first of which was organized by the government of Japan in 1993, aiming to improve relations with African countries and contribute to the peace, stability and development of the continent. At TICAD conferences, the message that sustainable development in Africa, which is frequently emphasized by international organizations such as the United Nations and African Union (AU), is possible only when all states, international and regional organizations, private and public sector institutions meet on common ground.

Before analyzing the 8th TICAD Conference, it is necessary to mention Japan-Africa relations. As it is known, after World War II, Japan’s efforts to ensure its economic development and to emerge as a dominant actor in the international arena, and the independence struggles of the majority of African countries correspond to almost the same period. In the first years of the Cold War, predominantly Western influence was observed in Japanese foreign policy. For this reason, the effect of this situation on relations with Africa is great. We also see that Japan developed relations with more British colonial countries in the 1950s and 1960s.

Two principles

Since the first period, Japan has been building its relations with Africa on the following two foreign policy principles:

“Seikei Bunri”: Separating economics and politics; and

The “Yoshida Principle”: Considering economic development as the primary goal in foreign policy and giving more space to political issues in diplomacy.

Thanks to these principles, Japan became an important economic and technological power in a short time by channeling all its motivation to economic and development issues, despite the demand of its strategic ally, the United States, to increase its military expenditures from time to time. In this context, Japan has chosen to shape its relations with Africa according to the economic perspective. The Tokyo administration has transferred great resources, especially in the fields of development and humanitarian aid, to some African countries, where it is of great importance in terms of raw materials and market needs for its rapidly developing industry. In fact, by 1989, Japan had the title of the third largest donor to Sub-Saharan Africa among OECD countries.

On the other hand, it is possible to say that one of the most important milestones in Japan-Africa relations during the Cold War was the oil crisis in 1973. In the 1960s, almost all of the energy resources required for Japan’s rapidly developing industry came from the Middle East. Japan, which was perhaps the biggest economic power that was most affected by the oil crisis, had to develop new strategies to reduce its energy dependence on the Middle East. At this point, developing strong relations with African countries, which have rich energy resources, has become one of the priority issues of Japanese foreign policy.

After the Oil Crisis, Japan tried to develop its relations with Africa not only in the context of bilateral relations, but also through multilateral mechanisms such as the Organization of African Unity and the African Development Bank. For this reason, Japan stands out as one of the biggest donors of the African Development Bank, which it joined in 1983.

In the context of “Seikei bunri” and “Yoshida Principle,” which are important principles of Japan’s foreign policy, political and security issues, in Africa do not manifest much. However, Japan frequently emphasizes that collective security can be achieved through economic growth and development in security-related matters in foreign policy. In parallel with this attitude, it contributes to the African Union Peace Fund in order to ensure peace and stability in Africa.

China-Japan competition

Japan’s growing influence in Africa was overshadowed by the fact that China, which developed its economy rapidly after the Cold War with a mixed policy of socialism and market economy, and emerged as a great power, began to increase its influence in Africa as well as in the whole world. With the Forum on China–Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) summits it has organized since 2000 and the bilateral relations it has rapidly developed and deepened in the continent, China has become the largest commercial actor in Africa. So much so that despite the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2021, China’s bilateral trade volume with Africa reached $254 billion. On the other hand, according to Japan’s 2020 data, the bilateral trade volume with African countries remained at approximately $17 billion. In this context, the potential of Japan to compete with China in the commercial field in Africa is seen to be quite low in the short projection.

However, this does not mean that Japan and China do not compete in the African continent, because Japan cares about breaking the power of China, which it sees as a regional rival. In this context, the African continent, where China has risen rapidly, is one of the regions that Japanese foreign policymakers follow with great sensitivity. China, on the other hand, considers developing relations with actors that will support it not only in its economic interests but also in political matters. For example, the efforts of the Beijing government to prevent Taiwan’s political recognition in the international arena continued in Africa, and many African countries cut their diplomatic ties with Taiwan after China’s attempts.

The most concrete example of the competition between China and Japan in the African continent took place in 2014. Then-Japanese Foreign Minister Shinzo Abe traveled with a large delegation to the Ivory Coast, Ethiopia and Mozambique on Jan. 2-9, 2014. On the other hand, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi also went to Ghana, Senegal, Djibouti and Ethiopia on Jan. 7-11, 2014. Press members asked the representatives of both countries whether the crossing of travel dates could be interpreted as competition in Africa. Hiroshige from the Japanese delegation, and both countries, denied these allegations. Seko, on the other hand, said that “African countries are important regardless of China.” However, despite these explanations, many experts concluded that the two countries competed with each other in the travels and contacts made during this period.

Another situation in which Japanese-Chinese competition can be observed in the African continent is the TICAD and FOCAC summits. At the 8th TICAD summit held in Tunisia by Japan on Aug. 27-28, 2022, many direct and indirect criticisms were made against China’s presence in Africa. Japan develops relations with African countries with the slogan of “grow together.” For this reason, at the 8th TICAD conference, it was announced that Japan will invest $30 billion in Africa for the private and public sectors and will develop projects for the training of 300,000 Africans in various sectors over the next three years. In addition, food aid of $130 million was mentioned for the food crisis, which became a very critical situation after the Ukraine war. On the other hand, it was often emphasized at the conference that China established its presence in Africa on partial aid programs to strengthen the Belt and Road Project and debt diplomacy, and therefore following a neocolonial method of exploitation.

The main topics

To briefly interpret the 8th TICAD conference; the main topics of the conference are health, human security and sustainable partnership. However, in the background, it is possible to say that the entire focus of the Japanese is on the aim of coming out of the energy crisis that is already in the global arena with very little damage. Therefore, during the two-day conference, Sojitz Corp , Mitsubishi, Jogmec, Toyota and Toshiba have signed important agreements with African companies in the field of energy. Politically, the conference was dominated by an attitude condemning Russia’s recent aggressive behavior and an obvious critical discourse toward China’s neocolonial practices in Africa.

There have been some developments that cast a shadow over the hoped-for success of the 8th TICAD conference, to which Japan attaches great importance to African relations. Primarily due to a COVID-19 infection, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s online participation in the meeting was evaluated as a negative development. The fact that many African high-level representatives, apart from Kishida, preferred to attend the conference online, reduced the efficiency of the organization. However, the situation that left its mark on the 8th TICAD was the crisis experienced after the participation of the Polisario’s leader, Brahim Ghali, representing the Sahara Democratic Arab Republic, to the conference.

As it is known, the establishment of the Sahara Democratic Arab Republic was announced by the Polisario Front in 1976. However, Morocco strongly opposed this announcement, and in the following years, a frozen conflict began between the two actors. In fact, Morocco has made preventing the recognition of the Sahara Democratic Arab Republic an important issue of its foreign policy. Moroccan delegates did not attend the conference protesting Ghali’s participation in the 8th TICAD and summoned the Tunisian Ambassador as a reaction.

Macky Sall, chairperson of the African Union and president of Senegal, evaluated the lack of Morocco’s participation in the 8th TICAD as a regrettable development. In addition to Sall’s comments, statements were made from Guinea-Bissau, Liberia and Comor Islands that the 8th TICAD could not achieve the desired success due to the lack of Morocco. In the face of these criticisms, it was reported from the Japanese Foreign Ministry that Gali was invited not by themselves but by other stakeholders who organized the summit, and this was a surprise for them as well. However, even this statement can be considered as data for questioning the organizational ability of the Japanese representatives.

Source : Daily Sabah