With the existing fabric of international relations unravelling, one area of activity is attracting more and more attention; the leading nations are jostling each other for influence in what they see as the most interesting regions.
And increasingly, one of the most important regions is the vast continent of Africa, rich in a wide range of natural resources, and which forms the “western boundary” of the Indo-Pacific region, currently the main focus of geopolitical maneuvering between the great world powers. As a result, the control of that boundary is of great strategic as well as economic importance.
That strategic importance helps to explain why the leading world powers are competing with each other for a “piece” of the African continent. But if they were able to coordinate their efforts then a lot more progress could be made in solving the key problems that beset most of the countries on the continent. Problems like economic fatigue, poor transport infrastructure, vulnerability to epidemics, an underdeveloped education system and the resulting lack of opportunities for young people, and various forms of political or religious extremism including international terrorist organizations.
But far from cooperating, those leading world powers are actively working against each other. Their failure to work together is an obstacle to progress in solving Africa’s problems, and, what is more, it is causing them to view each other with a great deal of suspicion.
Those two points were highlighted by the Chinese newspaper the Global Times, in an article on the 7th Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD VII) which took place in Yokohama and ended on August 30.
47 African countries officially took part in TICAD VII. Of those, 42 sent delegations headed by senior officials. The 4500 delegates included representatives of state bodies from the participating nations, as well as private companies and a range of international organizations.
It should be noted that at present TICAD is, for Japan, the most important bilateral forum for promoting its interests in a continent that is full of opportunities. Three years ago, at the time of the previous conference (TICAD VI), held in the Kenyan capital Nairobi, we briefly reviewed the forum’s history and its main areas of focus.
The document issued at the end of TICAD VII generally reaffirmed those areas of focus and the specific proposals set out in the Declarations accepted in the 2013 Conference, also held in Yokohama, and the 2016 Conference, held in Nairobi.
But the Declaration issued in 2019 included a new and very striking political innovation which immediately attracted a great deal of attention from political observers. The Declaration recorded a resolution passed by the conference delegates to uphold the principles of the Free and Open Indo-Pacific Initiative. This phrase, which is absolutely innocuous, and even positive in nature – no-one has any objections to its wording – needs a little explanation.
Towards the end of 2011, when, under Barak Obama and Hilary Clinton, US foreign policy changed course, the so-called “turn towards Asia”, China was identified as the main threat to US national interests. As for the nature of those threats, they were associated with the idea that China could upset the “freedom and openness” of the region. And, in order to demonstrate that this threat was not just a figment of its imagination, the US cited the complex situation in South China Sea, where there are a number of territorial disputes between China and its neighbors over a number of archipelagoes and individual islands.
That phrase (“a free and open Indo-Pacific”) has turned into a kind of meme, or mantra, which US allies tend to repeat or make references to, directly or indirectly, when participating in any international forum dealing with the region.
As for the Japanese government’s interpretation of that mantra, it was set out by Shinzo Abe, the Japanese Prime Minister, in his speech before TICAD VI, in 2016. But, we repeat, it was not until August 2019, at the end of TICAD VII, that the phrase made its appearance in the text of the final Declaration.
The present author does not, by any means, believe that the Declaration’s African signatories are aware of or agree with the document’s anti-Chinese subtext put in it by China’s “well-wishers”. After all, China is now the uncontested leader in the development of wide-ranging relations with African countries and it is more involved in the continent’s economy than Japan is.
That is clearly demonstrated by the comparative data on a range of different indicators published by the Japanese newspapers Yomiuri Shimbun and Mainichi Shimbun during TICAD VII. Japan allocated $20 billion for investment in Africa between 2016 and 2018 (from private sources of finance), and has allocated the same amount for the next three years, while China has allocated $60 billion (primarily from the state budget), also over a 3-year period, but in China’s case the period of 3 years started in 2018. The number of companies from the two countries doing business in Africa is as follows: Japan – 800, China – 10,000 The two countries’ exports to African countries: Japan – $8.1 billion, China – $105.3 billion
In other words, it is clear that there is no reason why the African nations in question should want to “spit in the well from which they draw water” and insult China by signing an official document. Each person is free to interpret the (completely innocuous, as we have already said) document as they wish, but their interpretation may reveal more about that person’s own cynicism than it does about the document itself.
It is worth noting that, since 2000, China has held its own competing forum, the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), which is no less prestigious than TICAD. The most recent FOCAC, held in Beijing on September 3-4, 2018, was jointly led by Xi Jinping, the Chinese President, and his South African counterpart Cyril Ramaphosa.
In conclusion, the author would once again like to express his regret that, in the important matter of working together to promote the wide-ranging social and economic development of the African nations, the two leading Asian powers have chosen to follow entirely separate parallel paths and as a result view each other with suspicion. That suspicion is completely unwarranted, given the marked improvement in relations between China and Japan over the last two years.
Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the issues of the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.