Japan deepens its engagement of Africa

Japan deepens its engagement of Africa

Against the backdrop of China and India’s rise, Japan looks to Africa to help assert its position in a contested regional order

Africa is becoming a new strategic playground for Asian nations, especially Japan, China and India. While China and India are relatively new to the contemporary African game, Japan’s engagement of postcolonial Africa has been multifaceted, deep and long. It has conducted trade with Africa, notably even with apartheid South Africa, mainly for resources.

But Tokyo’s most distinctive diplomatic tool of engagement with the continent has been its Official Development Assistance (ODA), channelling money via bilateral relationships as well as multilateral organisations, such as the World Bank and the African Development Bank.

Tokyo’s interest in providing economic aid to Africa, especially to the sub-Saharan nations began as far back as 1966, when India and China were heavily focused on domestic development and largely absent from Africa. Apart from an economic and humanitarian agenda, Tokyo’s bid for a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council in the 1990s also underpinned its rising interest in Africa, which commands sizeable votes in the UN.

To effectively engage Africa as a continent, Tokyo skilfully crafted an institutional framework in 1993 by launching a multilateral forum, called the Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD). Since then, every five years until 2013, TICAD was held in Japan. It generated so much interest in Africa that at the TICAD V in Yokohama, members decided to hold it every three years. Realising TICAD’s value in cultivating economic and diplomatic influence, both China and India launched their own multilateral forums targeting Africa in 2000 and 2008, respectively.

Japan’s decision to hold TICAD VI in Nairobi, Kenya, in August 2016 heralds a landmark in the Japanese–African relationship. In TICAD’s 23-year history, this is the first time the conference has been held on African soil, symbolising a turning point in Japan’s relationship with Africa under the leadership of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Japan’s extension of TICAD discussions to the African continent mirrors its expanding diplomatic horizons—a proactive stance embodied in the equally momentous new security legislation ratified in March 2016. Indeed, the pronounced diversity of Kenya and East Africa make the region one of growing strategic interest for Japan, from an economic, security and diplomatic perspective.

Abe’s vision

As China identifies Kenya as an East African hub of its Maritime Silk Road, Abe presents a vision of Africa ripe with economic potential, political dividend, and international leverage. At the 2015 Forum on China–Africa Cooperation, Chinese president Xi Jinping boldly committed US $60 billion in various forms of loans, grants and investment to Africa over a six-year period. In Nairobi, Abe similarly committed $30 billion over three years, a clear signal that Japan is willing to go head-to-head with China in the African ‘aid game’.

As Japan steps up to confront Chinese influence on the continent, Africa stands to benefit from a windfall of investment. Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta’s comments at TICAD VI acknowledge the overall sentiment of African leaders regarding the development of a competitive investment environment: ‘The landscape across the continent is rapidly changing: investments in infrastructure, energy, and education are unlocking the value of Africa’s abundant natural resources … And as this mammoth continent moves, it is sending shockwaves throughout the world.’

In addressing the 54 African state leaders and 52 international representatives at TICAD VI, Prime Minister Abe promoted Japan’s national brand as one marked by quality and empowerment. By suggesting Japan’s characteristic superiority in quality, Abe invokes common African prejudices against Chinese business and construction firms. Moreover, Abe appeals to the principles of quality infrastructure investment established at the G7 Ise–Shima Summit .

‘In Africa, where possibilities abound, Japan can grow vigorously’

Africa, the world’s next great growth market, offers Japan long-term economic opportunity. In speaking about the ‘third arrow’ of his domestic economic agenda, Abe characterised structural reform as a growth strategy hinging on challenge, openness, and innovation. TICAD’s utility in connecting Japanese investors to vast African markets builds on this concept of openness, and holds the potential to support sustained growth for Japan’s economy. Africa’s industrial development is a critical piece of Japan’s economic revival, presenting businesses and entrepreneurs the promise of rising middle-income consumers across the continent.


Empowerment, as Abe presents it, moves beyond economic opportunity. Abe speaks of an African continent that is stable, secure, and assertive of its rightful place in the international community. He highlights Japan’s role and responsibility to empower Africa. This empowered role and responsibility to Africa, within the international community, is a common theme of the Abe government in line with its vision for a broader Japanese security presence. As Abe points out, ‘in Africa, where possibilities abound, Japan can grow vigorously’. His words at TICAD VI resonate with his agenda for economic revival and an expanded and proactive security presence in Africa.

Beyond business and development partnerships, security and stability took center stage at the conference. As outlined in the Nairobi Declaration, stability featured as one of the ‘three pillars’ of this meeting. Five initiatives fell under the banner of stability: social stability and peacebuilding; terrorism and violent extremism; global issues and challenges (e.g. sustainable development, resource security, and good governance); maritime security; and United Nations reform. All these initiatives illustrate features of Japan’s defence strategy and its desired role in the international community.

While human security has been discussed in previous conferences, TICAD VI prominently features specific security domains and defence initiatives for the first time. For example, under the social security and stability initiative, the Nairobi Declaration pledges Japanese support in strengthening the ‘capacity for surveillance and containment, cross-border security, coordinated border management and peacekeeping operations’.

Currently, Japan deploys more than 270 Self Defense Force (SDF) personnel in South Sudan as part of the United Nations Mission in the Republic of South Sudan, with a promise of growing commitment across the continent. Under the new security legislation, SDF personnel in South Sudan are authorised to conduct escort and support missions for fellow peacekeepers and non-governmental organisation workers. The newly revised International Peace Cooperation Act also enables SDF troops to extend protection to civilians and local populations. In their new role, SDF personnel are for the first time given the power to use weapons if need arises.

Within the African maritime domain, the Nairobi Implementation plan details Japan’s commitment to ‘reinforce the rule of law at sea through capacity building of maritime law enforcement authorities’. This expands Japan’s antipiracy missions in the Indian Ocean, supported by the establishment of its first overseas SDF base in Djibouti in 2011. These initiatives go hand and hand with Japan’s forward leaning defence strategy.


At TICAD VI, Abe underscored ‘proactive contribution to peace and security based on the principle of international cooperation’, distinguishing Japan as the flag-bearer for this defensive posture. This proactive strategy finds its core in the new security legislation, and features in Japan’s 2015 Development Cooperation Charter. It points to a new reality coupling Japanese development strategy and security engagement on the African continent.

Beyond the increasing aid and security-related interests, Japan also wants to engage Africa through expanding diplomatic networks. To that end, it plans to establish a diplomatic mission and appoint an ambassador to the African Union, alongside the 50 members headquartered in Ethiopia.

Tokyo also plans to establish two more embassies in Africa, raising the total to 36. Both Abe’s opening address and the Nairobi Declaration place UN Security Council (UNSC) reform as an issue of paramount importance. While some aspects of Chinese and Japanese economic diplomacy in Africa may be compatible, their deeply conflicting agendas concerning UNSC reform epitomise the battle for influence on the continent. Along with expanding economic commitments, Japan’s increasing diplomatic presence on the continent reflects the greater rivalry between China and Japan on the regional and international stage.

The TICAD Nairobi conference reinforced Japan’s far-reaching security ambitions and its willingness to compete with China in both economic and diplomatic realms. Along with the perception of quality, Abe aims to brand Japan as an empowered player in the Indo–Pacific region.

Against the backdrop of China and India’s rise, Japan looks to Africa to help assert its position in a contested regional order. Echoing this proactive engagement strategy and paired economic vision for Africa, Abe asserted Japan’s responsibility of ‘fostering the confluence of the Pacific and Indian Oceans and of Asia and Africa into a place that values freedom, the rule of law, and the market economy, free from force or coercion, and making it prosperous’.

Brittany Morreale is a PhD candidate in the Department of Asian Studies, University of Adelaide.
Purnendra Jain is a professor in the Department of Asian Studies, University of Adelaide, and formerly President of the Asian Studies Association of Australia.

Featured image
Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo addresses TICAD VI. Photo GCIS @Flickr GovernmentZA

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