Africa: chronicle of a lost economic encounter

Japan on Saturday announced a major three-year, $30 billion investment plan for Africa. A program that gives the impression that Tokyo wants to play a more important role in the African economy, but that must be placed in a complex historical context.

China, India, United States, Europe… but also Japan. Everyone wants to gain an economic foothold in Africa, including the former Empire of the Rising Sun, which we often forget when it comes to discussing foreign interests in the African continent.

The Prime Minister of Japan, Fumio Kishida, recalled this on Saturday August 27, on the occasion of the eighth Tokyo International Conference on African Development held in Tunisia, promising that his country will invest a record amount of 30 billion dollars in the three years in Africa.

Japan, ahead of major summits for Africa

This is more than the 20 billion dollars that Tokyo has promised to put on the table to help the development of African countries in 2019. And not far from the 40 billion in loans promised by China, the great competitor in the region in Japan, in African countries. last year.

These investment pledges tick the main boxes of emergencies facing Africa. Fumio Kishida announced more than one billion to help the continent deal with epidemics such as Covid-19, and support projects to fight global warming. Finally, Tokyo also wants to help Africa overcome food shortages caused by the war in Ukraine.

The remaining $30 billion will be used to attract Japanese companies to invest in Africa. A score that will ultimately be familiar to anyone familiar with the history of Japan-Africa economic relations. This combination of humanitarian aid and investment promises is a cocktail that “Tokyo has presented many times to African countries in the past”, said Kweku Ampiah, specialist in economic relations between Japan and African countries in University of Leeds.

This was even the main credo of the last Tokyo International Conferences on African Development – also called Ticad (Tokyo International Conference on African Development). They are the forefathers of the economic summits for Africa organized by most of the major powers.

Japan, in fact, is a pioneer in this area. The first Ticad took place in Tokyo in 1993, shortly before France did the same in 1996, then it was the turn of China (2006), India (2008), the United States (2014) and, finally, Russia ( 2019).

Historical disagreement

A pole position in the race for the African market where Japan did not benefit at all. “Except during Ticad, Japan is not visible in Africa and Africa is not visible in Japan”, summarized Seifudein Adem, specialist in international relations with Japan at Dōshisha University in Kyoto, who was interviewed by the South China Morning Post.

To make matters worse, Japan lost more land. “He’s the 4e trading partner of sub-Saharan African countries in 2004, and now there are only 6e“, emphasizes the Financial Times. “At the continental level, it is not part of the top 10 of the most important investors. Japan has even overtaken Singapore and Switzerland,” said Kweku Ampiah.

A sad record that stems from a historical misunderstanding. “The TICADs initially depended on the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs alone. In fact, despite its name of the development conference, it is a more diplomatic than economic initiative”, explained the university specialist. in Leeds.

In the 1990s, Japan “wanted to raise its international prestige and wanted to sit as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council”, recalled Bolade M. Eyinla, professor of international relations at the University of Ilorin, Nigeria, in a study of Japanese diplomacy in Africa published in 2019. To do this, the support of African countries is needed…

Nor was the economic interest of investing in Africa clear to the Japanese at the beginning of the 21st century.e century. At that time, “developing commercial relations with other Asian countries was enough for Japan”, said Kweku Ampiah.

A competitor for China?

It wasn’t until African countries began to experience rapid growth in the late 2000s and early 2010s, driven by investment in China and India, that Japan realized it was missing a train in which it nevertheless attached the first car.

It was from this point that the Japanese government began to insist more and more on the investment of Japanese companies in Africa. “Since Shinzo Abe became Prime Minister [en 2012, NDLR]Japan has been very good at talking about public-private cooperation in encouraging companies to invest in Africa,” said Kweku Ampiah.

A voluntary speech that made some say that Japan is trying to cover China in Africa, highlighted Daisuke Akimoto, political scientist at Meiji University in Tokyo, in a column published on the site The Diplomat. Subsequently, Japan adopted a three-year rhythm for its summit “at the request of African countries who say that China is doing this”, said Kweku Ampiah in a column published in the daily which is South Africa’s Daily Maverick. Tokyo also agreed to hold its summit with African countries…as did China. Until 2016, these conferences to promote the development of Africa systematically took place in the capital of Japan.

However, the idea that Africa is the new ground in a battle for influence between Japan and China seems implausible to Kweku Ampiah. “No politician in Japan believes this. Japan has absolutely no way to compete with China,” he concluded.

There are more than 500 Japanese companies in Africa and 70% of the investments are concentrated in South Africa. Not to mention the approximately 2,500 Chinese companies established across the African continent.

In fact, there is again a gap between Japanese announcements and reality. “Some of the interlocutors in Africa think that the Japanese always talk but do little,” said Kweku Ampiah. In other words, promises of billion-dollar investments don’t always materialize.

This is why this specialist is cautious about the announcements of the eighth Ticad. “We will wait to see how these promises are translated into action,” he concluded. Perhaps this is a real change in the Japanese approach to Africa, or perhaps it is another missed opportunity. The end? In the influential Japanese business daily Nihon Keizai Shinbun, a columnist wrote in June 2022 that some people close to the government wanted to draw a certain line under Ticad.

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