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International Relations

Asia's run on African resources

In a bid to counter China's rising global influence, rival Japan has pledged billions in aid to Africa. Tokyo is seeking to tap into the continent's vast resources and secure contracts for energy and mineral rights.

For the second time in five years Japan has shifted its foreign policy focus to Africa. During last weekend's Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD), Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (main picture left) pledged African leaders 3.2 trillion yen (about 32 billion US dollars) in public and private support to help growth on the continent and encourage Japanese firms to invest there over the next five years.

The package unveiled before representatives from 51 African nations as well as representatives from the United Nations and World Bank, includes $14 billion in official development aid and a $6.5 billion support to help with infrastructure. "What Africa needs now is private-sector investment," said Abe in Yokohama, adding that the cooperation between public organizations and private companies leverages such investment.

For some years now, Japan has been stepping up efforts to match neighboring China's influence in the continent. During the previous TICAD in 2008, former Japanese Primer Minister Yasuo Fukuda had pledged to double his country's aid to the continent in a bid to inspire growth and attract private investment.

From front row, left to right, Swaziland King Mswati III, World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, former Japanese Prime Mminister Yoshiro Mori and Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, Chairperson of the African Union Commission, and UNDP Administrator Helen Clark pose with other leaders of African countries during a photo session before the opening session of the Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD) in Yokohama Saturday, June 1, 2013. (Photo: AP Photo/Kazuhiro Nogi, Pool)

Delegates from 51 African nations participated in the conference that takes place every five years

But despite Tokyo's longstanding relations with Africa, Beijing's more aggressive approach, driven largely by heavy investment, has given it five times the trading volume and eight times the direct investment. According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), China's trade receipts with the African continent reached 138.6 billion US dollars last year far outstripping the 30-billion-dollar bilateral trade partnership between Japan and Africa.

Diplomatic struggle with China

This strategy is also paying off politically for China, since it has given the country more leverage in international intuitions such as the United Nations where the Japan is striving for a permanent seat in the Security Council. This may even haven an effect on the current dispute between the two Asian powers over what Japan calls the Senkaku islands and China the Diaoyu islands.

There are therefore several key aspects underlying Japan's latest pledge. First and foremost, Tokyo is aiming at securing access to Africa's vast resources and countering China's political influence in the continent. Furthermore, the aid money is expected to flow back to Japan in the form of export orders. Tokyo claims it wants to transform its relationship with Africa from that of donor-recipient to a business partnership.

In his keynote speech at the conference, Abe emphasised that Japan's commitment in Africa was different from that of other countries. The Primer Minister stated that while Africa's abundant natural resources may provide important business opportunities for his resource-poor country, Japan wouldn't be exploiting them simply for exporting. "We want to make the African people live in prosperity by developing industries and creating jobs," Abe said. Critics believe the Japan's leader was targeting in his statement rival China, which, according to critics, doesn't do much fort he democratic and economic development of the continent.

China's President Xi Jinping (front L) and First Lady Peng Liyuan take part in a welcoming ceremony upon their arrival at Julius Nyerere International Airport with his Tanzanian counterpart Jakaya Kikwete (front 2nd L) and First Lady Salma Kikwete (front R) in Dar es Salaam, March 24, 2013. Xi faces growing calls from policymakers and economists in Africa for a more balanced trade relationship between the continent and China as he arrives in Tanzania at the beginning of an African tour on Sunday. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya (TANZANIA - Tags: BUSINESS POLITICS)

Japan is eager to match China's growing involvement in the African continent

However, the current Japanese plans are not altruistic. Tokyo's aid money will flow only under the condition that African states commission Japanese companies for infrastructure projects. Many countries are in desperate need of roads, ports, railroad lines, dams and power plants – all projects Japanese industrial companies specialize on. Tokyo's exports are expected to increase threefold by 2020. Japanese firms were even offered assistance in networking by World Bank President Jim Yong Kim.

Africa neglected for years

But despite the pledges made five years ago Japan's influence in the continent is barely visible today. Only a handful of large companies like Panasonic have jumped at the opportunities offered and tried to catch up to the already established Chinese and Korean competitors. Japanese relations to Africa had initially been shaped by dealing with negative issues such as HIV, poverty, war and corruption.

The government's current turnaround is no longer based on humanitarian grounds. According to comments in Japanese media, Tokyo is simply acting in accordance with its national interests.

Back in the years of Japan's post-war economic miracle, the country resorted to the so-called chequebook diplomacy to establish friendly ties with emerging nations. The government pursued the strategy so aggressively that Japan became the world's largest donor of development aid between 1993 and 2000.

However, the country's massive amount of debt amassed in the past decade led to a drastic reduction in development assistance. Japan now ranks fifth among international donor countries, one position behind Germany. So far, the world's third largest economy had been focusing its aid on Asia.