Japan cannot stop China from owning Africa. When it comes to votes of African nations in international agencies, that is.
It’s too late. China already owns the votes of most Africa nations.
Japan has a new mission in Africa: to save it from China’s “debt trap,” the prospect that some African nations become so indebted to China that they have eventually to cede control of key assets to Beijing; and become modern day semi-colonies.
That’s what has already happened in countries like Sri Lanka, where Beijing wound up owning the country’s two major ports by converting loans into equity, as was written in previous pieces here.
How did Japan hope to counter China’s influence? By providing “aid” rather than loans to African nations in need of financing for key infrastructure projects.
At least, that was the message echoed in the 7th Tokyo International Conference on African Development held last week in Yokohama, where Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe warned African leaders about the dangers of becoming excessively indebted to Beijing.
That’s something his country’s plan for Africa seeks to avoid. “In providing assistance to Africa, we have to take note of the debt burden of the recipient country and take care that the debt burden does not become excessive,” Abe is quoted as saying.
Beijing contested Tokyo’s claims, in a Globaltimes editorial which accused Japan of using aid to gain influence in Africa.
Africa’s Frontier Economies
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What kind of influence? Votes in international agencies, like the UN, for security issues in the South China Sea and beyond.
The problem for Japan is that China has already won most of the votes.
“For China and Japan, the primary reason for involvement in Africa is diplomatic,” says Ted Bauman, economist and senior research analyst at Banyan Hill Publishing. “Ever since African nations became independent in the 1960s, foreign powers have courted them for their votes in the United Nations and other global forums. During the Cold War, the big issues were about superpower rivalry between the U.S. and USSR.”
Things are slightly different nowadays. “Today it’s about garnering support for China or Japan in their ongoing disputes over territorial waters in the East and South China Seas,” he says. “Ever since 39 African countries sided with China in an International Court of Justice case in 2016, Japan has courted the continent aggressively. Japanese diplomacy towards Africa has become more urgent as the former has tried to counter Chinese Belt and Road initiative with its own Free and Open Indo Pacific proposal.”
But Tokyo has a big disadvantage compared to Beijing. “Unlike China the Japanese government cannot instruct its private companies to invest in Africa,” says Bauman. “So, Japan has tried to leverage increasing African concern about the terms of Chinese development agreements, which often involve massive Chinese government loans to already indebted African governments. “
Meanwhile, Tokyo has its own offer to Africa: “higher-quality infrastructure projects on more attractive terms than the Chinese,” he says. “For example, projects sponsored by the government of Japan employ local African workers, whereas Chinese projects routinely import thousands of Chinese laborers, leading to much resentment amongst ordinary Africans. Japanese projects have less restrictive terms than Chinese offerings.”
Still, Japan is late in the game, and it has to address its own debt problems before it address the debt problems of African nations.