Japan sells itself as Global South’s China counterweight with whistle-stop tour of Africa, South Asia

As well as stepping up engagement, Tokyo’s aim is to narrow the development gap among countries in the Global South – a term for a loose grouping of developing nations – according to Céline Pajon, head of Japan research at the French Institute of International Relations’ Centre for Asian and Indo-Pacific Studies in Paris.

Strategic considerations were front of mind during the visits, Pajon said, noting that Japan’s free and open Indo-Pacific plan was particularly relevant to Madagascar, given the island’s location in the western Indian Ocean, separated from the African continent by the Mozambique Channel.

The 1,700km (1,100-mile) strategic waterway is primarily used for trade and the transport of energy resources and minerals, but drug trafficking, illegal fishing and piracy have also become problems in recent years.

Boats operate off the coast of Paquitequete, on the opposite side of the Mozambique Channel from Madagascar. Piracy, trafficking and illegal fishing have become issues in the waterway in recent years. Photo: AFP

“Japan is thus seeking to strengthen maritime connectivity and security, through investments in the Toamasina Port and provision of patrol boats,” Pajon said, referring to Madagascar’s main port. She added that economic security was another key consideration as the island is rich in natural resources and minerals such as nickel.

In a meeting with Madagascar’s President Andry Nirina Rajoelina on Sunday, Kamikawa said Japan wanted to contribute to the African country’s economic resilience by improving mineral-resource production and fostering urban growth. In her meetings with senior Ivory Coast officials later in the week, she stressed the importance Tokyo attaches to the country as a gateway to the francophone region of West Africa.

Pajon said the minister’s visits were also aimed at laying the groundwork for the ninth Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD), which is set to be held in the Japanese port city of Yokohama in August next year.

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida delivers a virtual address to the eighth Tokyo International Conference on African Development, held in Tunis in 2022, as seen from the media centre. Photo: Kyodo

Japan’s footprint in Africa

Japan launched the TICAD in 1993, becoming the first Asian country to forge closer ties with Africa through an institutional framework, according to Purnendra Jain, an emeritus professor at the University of Adelaide’s Department of Asian Studies who specialises in Japan studies.

Beijing and New Delhi’s efforts – the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation and India-Africa Forum Summit – came later by comparison, starting in 2000 and 2008, respectively.

“China’s financial clout and political influence are enormous, and it is beyond Japan’s capacity to match China’s financial support to Africa, nor does it intend to do that,” said Jain, who is also a visiting senior fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Institute of South Asian Studies.

“However, Japan’s approach to Africa has been measured, nuanced and balanced, and Tokyo has involved many other stakeholders in the TICAD dialogue.”

China-Africa trade hit US$282 billion in 2023 but Africa’s trade deficit widens

China’s trade with Africa hit US$282 billion last year, nearly 12 times the US$24 billion in trade Japan does with the continent each year. Aid is more closely matched, however, with Japan pledging US$30 billion to Africa in 2022, a year after China had promised US$40 billion in loans and aid.

Ovigwe Eguegu, a policy analyst at African-led international development consultancy Development Reimagined, cited Nigeria and Ivory Coast as examples of Japan’s trade links with the continent.

The two countries are some of the biggest African importers of Japanese goods – mainly vehicles – but Eguegu said Chinese brands such as Sinotruk and Guangzhou Automobile Group had been aggressively competing for more than a decade to carve out their own market share.

“Beyond trade, Japan is aiming to deepen its political and diplomatic footprint in Africa at a time [when] African countries and the African Union are speaking with a louder voice in the international arena,” he said.

Passengers disembark from a train at Mobolaji Johnson Railway Station earlier this year on the China-built Lagos-Ibadan Railway. Chinese development loans to Africa have dropped in recent years. Photo: Xinhua
Shinichi Takeuchi, director of the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies’ African Studies Centre, said Kamikawa’s visit to Africa was timely given the reduction in China’s financial largesse towards the continent in recent years.

“China is a huge player in Africa … However, its economic commitment has reduced since the end of 2010s. The Japanese government wants to show itself as a stable partner,” Takeuchi said.

Chinese loans to Africa dropped to US$2.22 billion in 2021-2022, according to data compiled by Boston University’s Global Development Policy Centre and reported in September, down from a peak of more than US$28 billion in 2016.

Renewed focus on South Asia

As China continues to expand its regional footprint, Japan is also looking to expand trade and other areas of cooperation with Sri Lanka and Nepal.

During her trip to Sri Lanka on Saturday and Sunday, Kamikawa was expected to pay courtesy calls to President Ranil Wickremesinghe and Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardena.

The Indian Ocean island nation is a key part of Japan’s Indo-Pacific strategy and Pajon said Colombo was expected to continue seeking help from Tokyo to lighten its heavy debt burden.

“Japan has been playing a key role, along with France and India, in helping restructure Sri Lanka’s debt, while providing grants to support the country,” she said. “A debt recovery would allow Japan to resume its loans to Sri Lanka’s port infrastructure and more.”

Sri Lankan capital Colombo seen at sunset last month. Japan has been playing a key role in restructuring Sri Lanka’s heavy debt burden, observers say. Photo: AFP
Sri Lanka declared bankruptcy in April 2022, defaulting on more than US$83 billion of debt – more than half of that owed to foreign creditors – and turned to the International Monetary Fund for a bailout package.

In a move aimed at pushing forward negotiations on restructuring Sri Lanka’s debt, Japan joined India and France last April in launching an initiative that looked to kick off a series of meetings among the island nation’s creditors. An agreement on restructuring debt was reportedly reached in November.

Historically, Japan and Sri Lanka have had strong relations, but these were put to the test when former president Gotabaya Rajapaksa upset Tokyo by unilaterally scrapping several Japanese-funded projects, Jain said.

As such, Kamikawa’s trip to Colombo could become a platform for both countries to reset ties.

Tokyo would ideally like to assist Sri Lanka and Nepal to strike a balance so they do not feel crushed under a big power rivalry between China and India

Purnendra Jain, academic specialising in Japan
“Kamikawa’s mission is to build up the relationship,” he said, noting that Rajapaksa’s successor, Wickremesinghe, had apologised to Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida for the previous president’s actions in Tokyo last year.

Her Nepal stop on Sunday, meanwhile, is expected to see Kamikawa unveil plans for Japan to play a bigger role in Nepal’s economic and social development.

“Japan’s balancing act in Nepal is important, so China’s presence does not become oversized,” Jain said.

China has built airports, highways and hydropower projects in Nepal under its Belt and Road Initiative to grow global trade. Railway lines, electricity transmission projects and a proposed development corridor linking the Himalayan nation with China’s sprawling metropolis of Chongqing via Tibet and Sichuan are also under discussion.

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Japan was not just seeking to act as a counterweight to China, but also offer South Asia an alternative to India, Jain said.

“Tokyo would ideally like to assist Sri Lanka and Nepal to strike a balance so they do not feel crushed under a big power rivalry between China and India, who have dominant influence in Nepal,” he said.

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