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HomeNewsJapan’s TICAD may be upstaged by China, but remains important

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Japan is often overshadowed by its massive neighbour China in its African engagement. But Africans tend to forget that Japan’s association with collective Africa dates back to 1993 – seven years before either China or the European Union (EU) launched their forums.

Perhaps China upstages Japan because of the big financial packages of US$60 billion it likes to announce at every Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC). Japan’s forum, the Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD), is less ostentatious but still valuable, particularly for its emphasis on sustainable development assistance.

The eighth TICAD meeting takes place this weekend in Tunisia. The venue was chosen long ago and has become something of an embarrassment for Japan. TICAD puts heavy emphasis on democracy, yet Tunisian President Kais Saied has been steadily dragging the country towards authoritarianism. He suspended Parliament, fired the prime minister and dissolved the Supreme Judicial Council, which maintains judicial independence.

A Japanese official told ISS Today: ‘Japan is watching with keen interest the series of reforms that Tunisia is undertaking and expects it to address the most pressing issues in a manner that ensures transparency and broad public support.’

Japan expects nearly 50 African leaders, 200 civil society organisation representatives, 108 heads of regional and international agencies, and 120 business leaders to attend TICAD8. The forum is co-hosted by the United Nations (UN), UN Development Programme, World Bank and African Union Commission.

Japan’s association with Africa started seven years before either China or the EU launched their forums

Japan said because of the pandemic and the Ukraine war, the meeting would ‘discuss how to create a sustainable world together.’ It would aim to accelerate Japanese investment in Africa, especially in supporting start-ups and green businesses. It also aims to build stronger universal healthcare and measures to fight COVID-19. And the forum would support Africa-led efforts to achieve sustainable peace and stability, including strengthening the UN through Security Council reform, among other things.

Given that Japan has placed the summit in the context of the global situation and Russia’s war against Ukraine, it will be interesting to see how much this influences the debate and outcomes.

At a ministerial meeting in March to prepare for the summit, Japan firmly stated that ‘Russia’s recent aggression against Ukraine’ required the international community to defend UN Charter principles prohibiting the use of force against another country.

It also referenced China when it expressed its determination to cooperate with Africa under the vision of a Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP). This is a direct response to China’s growing assertiveness in the South China Sea, including claims on disputed islands that it’s using to control maritime passages. This is bringing China into ever more direct confrontation with Western powers – and Japan.

Africa has tended to stick to its old Cold War posture of non-alignment in the growing tensions between the West on one side and Russia and China on the other. So it is unclear how far Japan will go in seeking African support for its Russian or Chinese positions. Perhaps it’s hoping to have them only implicitly endorsed as general principles – i.e. support for the UN Charter principles and support for freedom of maritime passage.

TICAD is less ostentatious than FOCAC, and emphasises sustainable development assistance.

It seems unlikely that Tokyo will allow either to become deal breakers. By including them as outcomes of the ministerial meeting, it was perhaps just laying down a bargaining position for the summit – or announcing its positions to its Western allies.

Japan’s general approach to TICAD also differs from China’s FOCAC. China has financed and built many infrastructure projects, including railways, highways and government buildings. Though Japan has previously financed some large infrastructure projects in countries like Ghana, TICAD – rather like the EU – emphasises improving the underlying determinants of development and prosperity. These include peacebuilding, constitutional development, justice reform and democracy. Japan sees this as a more sustainable model.

Education and training figure prominently in the TICAD engagement. During the 29 years of the forum’s existence, it has trained thousands of African engineers, entrepreneurs and educators. It also supports Africa’s peacekeeping efforts with financial, technical and training assistance. TICAD’s New Approach to Peace and Security in Africa focuses on supporting institutional and policy reform, including boosting elections.

Another significant difference between the Japanese and Chinese approaches emerged at that ministerial TICAD meeting. Japan ‘reiterated the need for the UN Security Council reform and its clear support for the Common African position.’ So Japan – which is seeking a permanent seat on a reformed council – reaffirmed its support for Africa’s bid for the same. China vaguely supports Africa having a greater voice in the UN but has never explicitly supported any other countries getting permanent seats.

It’s unclear how far Japan will go in seeking African support for its Russian or Chinese positions

Other differences are the greater inclusiveness of TICAD, which involves multilateral institutions and civil society, while China keeps it all in government. Japan also emphasises the private sector as the driver of growth and stresses Africa’s agency in the partnership, aiming at 50:50 financing of projects.

There is also some overlap between TICAD and FOCAC, particularly in encouraging investors to focus on value addition rather than just raw materials in Africa, thereby boosting African returns on its exports.

According to the Africa Center for Strategic Studies (ACSS), Hannah Ryder, a former Kenyan and British diplomat who advises African countries on Southeast Asian partnerships, said African governments should draw inspiration from what independent Africa-China working groups did ahead of FOCAC8, by pushing Africa’s own agenda more.

Jean-Claude Maswana, an economics professor at Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto, proposes that Japan gradually phase out TICAD summits and focus instead on linking African and Japanese businesses and professionals. This is the Southeast Asian model, he told the ACSS, noting that the region’s economic transformation was driven not by governments but by business.

It is rare for anyone to remind the world that development aid should put itself out of business in favour of business. A rare but necessary message.

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