Between December 2020 and January 2021, the Japanese Foreign Minister Motegi made two official visits to Africa in a row (1st round: Tunisia, Mozambique, South Africa Mauritius, 2nd round: Senegal and Kenya) to discuss future collaboration with these countries with an eye set on the forthcoming TICAD8 to be held in Tunis in 2022. An annual visit by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi followed in early January 2021, kicking off the year of FOCAC to be held in Senegal this year. “Post-corona diplomacy” in Africa already seems to be in high gear among Asian countries. As African countries are faced with severe health and economic challenges with limited resources and capacities, how Japan is going to position itself in relation to other Asian countries in its support to Africa’s recovery from the pandemic and beyond will determine the future relationship between Japan and Africa in the coming years.
Though perhaps overshadowed by China’s overwhelming financial and economic influence in recent years, Japan has long been an important partner for Africa in multiple ways since the 1970s. Japan has supported Africa extensively through ODA in areas such as human resource development and institution building, social and economic infrastructure development, and agriculture and industrial modernization. Since the early 1990s, Japan has played an important role in the peace and security sector by participating in UN peacekeeping operations in Angola, Mozambique, Sudan and South Sudan. As Africa’s economy demonstrated long-awaited growth in the 2000s, African countries began to emerge as important economic partners for Japan as well. The statistics before the pandemic demonstrates that Japan’s trade with Africa had doubled over the past 20 years and the amount of direct investment to Africa reached USD20 billion in the three years preceding TICAD7 in 2019.
This decades-old relationship between Japan and Africa is based on the principles of respect for African ownership and equal partnership and has been nurtured through the series of organization of TICAD, the first of which dates as far back as to 1993 when the international community was suffering from an “aid fatigue” to Africa. Japan has always framed TICAD not as a bilateral forum to discuss Japan’s aid to Africa, but as a multilateral forum including the African Union, the UN and the World Bank to discuss challenges and solutions for long-term and sustainable development of Africa. More recently, keeping pace with the advent of globalization, Africa is positioned clearly in Japan’s global vision of the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” (FOIP), in which Africa is expected to play an important role as a strategic partner of countries in the Indo-Pacific Region, including India, united behind the principles of free trade, freedom of navigation, the rule of law and the free market economy. Japan has further stressed the financial sustainability of African countries’ public financial management and infrastructure development to avoid falling into the debt trap and ensure long-term sustained growth.
While African countries have managed to keep Covid-19 under control with a relatively low number of cases up until now, the pandemic continues to take a toll on African lives and economies. According to IMF/World Bank, economic activity is projected to decline by 3% in 2020, confirming the region’s first recession in 25 years. The pandemic has further impacted the most vulnerable in the society disproportionately, pushing up to 40 million people into extreme poverty and more than 200 million students out of school. Worse still, the pandemic is not the only threat people are experiencing in Africa today. Conflict, terrorism, drought, locust outbreak and forced displacement continue to disrupt human life even as the pandemic spreads, and often in combination with it. Multiple crises are threatening lives, livelihoods and the dignity of people of Africa, making the problem even more intractable.
There is therefore a pressing need to remind ourselves of the importance of the concept of Human Security, which focuses on individual human beings and on risks and vulnerabilities. It conceptualizes development not as a linear process but rather one of coping with various risks and threats to ensure people are able to live with dignity. It also calls upon the need for empowerment of individuals as much as strengthening of protection capacity to build resilience in societies. Human Security is not separate from Human Development, but rather its sibling. Together, they articulate foundational themes of the UN – peace, development and human rights/dignity as well as those of SDGs. As declared by PM Suga in his address to UNGA in September 2020, Japan’s support for combating the pandemic in developing countries will be guided by this philosophy of human security with the goal of “leaving no one’s health behind”.
As the institutional setup of TICAD suggests, Japan’s engagement with Africa is open to any willing partner as long as they share the same core values – the rule of law, transparency, sustainability and human security. We are even ready to join our hands with other partners if we can agree on these principles. Our approach to Africa is not to force to choose us or somebody else, but rather expand their options from which they can choose according to their priorities and needs with a single aim of enhancing peoples’ welfare. In other words, Japan is pursuing an engagement guided by universal values, not necessarily by economic influence alone. Private sector engagement will certainly be encouraged, as confirmed by Mr. Motegi recently, with a view to taking full advantage of AfCFTA which started at the beginning of this year, and the future possibility of connecting AfCFTA and FOIP in sight. On this note, however, we need to remind ourselves that the ground rules of the free world is that private businesses are answerable to their share-holders, not the state.
As the recent increase in the number of deaths from the pandemic suggests , Africa’s fight against Covid-19 is not over yet. But with the world’s largest free trade area opening with a 1.2 billion-person market, the continent is facing a great opportunity to turn this challenge into an opportunity to build a more resilient society and economy. Concerted action by the international community is called for to back up such an effort, for which Japan will spare no effort and stand ready to support its African partners.