Japanese PM’s trip to Africa: What does it imply?

By IMRAN KHALID | Gwadar Pro Apr 27, 2023

Editor's Note: The writer is a freelance columnist on international affairs based in Karachi, Pakistan. The article reflects the author's opinions and not necessarily the views of Gwadar Pro.

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida is slated to embark on a 7-day diplomatic trip to Egypt, Ghana, Kenya and Mozambique at the end of this week. This visit comes at a critical juncture, as it precedes the forthcoming G7 summit in Hiroshima in May. As Prime Minister Kishida embarks on his diplomatic voyage to Africa, the world will be watching closely to see how Japan's efforts to counterbalance China in the Global South unfold.

It is a critical moment in African politics, and Japan's actions will have far-reaching implications for the future of the region and the world. By opting to visit Africa, Kishida has made a major change in the traditional pre-G7 summit itinerary of his predecessors, who had shown a proclivity for travelling in the direction of the United States and Europe prior to hosting the G7 summits. As precedent suggests, before hosting the G-7 leaders, Japanese premiers have preferred to visit them in their home countries as a goodwill gesture.

But, this time, by prioritizing his trip to Africa ahead of hosting G-7 leaders, Kishida wants to give an indirect message about his desperation to strengthen the ties with the continent. Apart from the economic concerns, Kishida's recent fascination with the African continent can be attributed to three major factors: acquiring a permanent seat at the UN Security Council, bolstering Japan's presence in the Global South and counteracting the growing influence of China.

Economic factors have a limited role in the sudden interest of Tokyo in Africa. Rather, Japan has political objectives in mind. The African continent seems to be garnering increased attention from Tokyo with a view towards political gains. Specifically, the country is vying for a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council. African nations hold a significant proportion of the voting power in the U.N., making them a crucial bloc in Japan's diplomatic pursuits. By intensifying diplomatic ties with African nations, Japan hopes to counterbalance any potential influence that China may wield in the region and safeguard its strategic interests in key areas.

In light of the ongoing conflict in Ukraine and the United Nations' inability to effectively address it, Japan has invigorated its longstanding effort to reform the UN Security Council. At the heart of this effort lies Japan's aspiration to secure a permanent seat on the council, along with its push for the inclusion of Africa in the council's permanent membership. Tokyo sees the PM's trip as a strategic move to rally support from African nations and bolster its bid for permanent council membership.

To counterbalance China's clout in Africa, Japan is pursuing a two-pronged strategy. Firstly, instead of competing quantitatively, it aims to differentiate its financial aid and support package apart from China's offerings on the basis of "quality". Secondly, it is trying to intensify diplomatic engagements with African countries. By distinguishing itself from China and enhancing its presence in Africa, Japan hopes to bolster its strategic positioning in the region.

Japan aims to distinguish its development lending approach from China by placing greater emphasis on the quality, rather than the quantity of aid provided. Japan is stressing personnel training as the criteria for 'quality'. At the same time, Japan is augmenting the hype against China for its so-called debt trap diplomacy. Although economists are increasingly reaching a consensus that the debt-trap allegations are unfounded, it remains a common criticism levelled against China by Western nations and their allies. Such accusations are still being fanned enthusiastically by Japan to discredit China in Africa.

At the Eighth Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD 8) held in Tunisia on 27th - 28th August, 2022, in an effort to offset China's economic engagements in Africa, Kishida pledged $30 billion in public and private contributions to the African continent over the course of the next three years. But this amount is far less  than China's pledge of $40 billion at the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) in Senegal in 2021.

The fact is that Japan, owing to its high national debt and shrinking economy, is in no position to match China's level of financial assistance to Africa. Kishida also knows this reality very well. That is why he is desperately trying to "differentiate" Japan's offerings from China's. When contrasting Tokyo's strategy with that of Beijing, it becomes evident that Japan is harboring ambitious designs in Africa and sees China as a formidable rival. Tokyo is pitching such an extensive collaborative undertaking just to muffle the growing influence of China in Africa.

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