Africa has been in the middle of unforeseen international competition for the better part of the past two decades. Both the return of traditional players – notably European countries and the United States – as well as a marked new interest shown by emerging economies led the continent out of the substantial neglect it suffered during the latter years of the past century. The drivers of the revived attention towards the area include material interests (from minerals, energy resources and land, to access to frontier markets) as well as geopolitical considerations, both linked to specific phenomena such as migration or jihadism and to a broader competition for power and influence. Tensions originating in other regions, such as divisions among Middle Eastern countries or rivalries within the Indo-Pacific, increasingly tend to reverberate in Africa. The far-reaching implications for the continent – where many governments have now become more used to being courted than ever before, and are increasingly aware of their margins for manoeuvre – which include both risks and opportunities, politically and economically.
Mirroring its rise and growing influence as a global power, China’s well-known expansion on the African continent since the mid-1990s remains unmatched. Whether one focuses on the numbers, particularly for trade exchanges, investments and loans, or else one looks at the reality on the ground, in terms of Chinese diaspora, businesses or all-present works on infrastructures – as well as the country’s first overseas military base – the changes are visible across the spectrum. The latest story about Beijing’s presence concerns, in the Covid-19 era, the so-called ‘pandemic diplomacy’, from an early and well-publicized distribution of protective equipment and drugs to African governments, to the promise and initial deliveries of vaccines to an area where the risk of being excluded or delayed by word-wide efforts to stop the epidemic remains high.
But the Chinese presence has not gone without criticisms, particularly on the part of many nervous Western governments, nor occasional local resentment, from fishermen, miners or workers in different parts of the continent perceive negative effects of the arrival and practices of Chinese businesses. The growing share of Africa’s debt controlled by Beijing has also become an issue of both financial and geopolitical concern. In principle, if not yet in practice, the awareness of a number of risks that might be associated with Chinese involvement may open new space for deeper inroads by alternative external players.
While the east Asian giant’s involvement in Africa has long been widely covered by the international media and monitored by analysts, less so is the case with a number of other key Asian countries that have also developed closer relations with African states. In the post-WWII era, the two continents had already gone through an early period when a joint dialogue on development and decolonisation was started, with the 1955 Asian and African Conference in Bandung, Indonesia. While China and India were among those behind the initiative, Japan also took part, albeit from a very different position.
Both Delhi and Tokyo have in recent years revived their relations with the African region, acknowledging its growing geopolitical and economic relevance and investing financial and diplomatic capital. In 2017, the two also joined forces in launching the Asia-Africa Growth Corridor (AAGC) – first conceived by Prime Ministers Shinzo Abe and Narendra Modi in late 2016 – aimed at a closer cooperation on and with Africa, particularly in sectors such as infrastructure and digitalisation. While the AAGC initiative is yet to produce substantial tangible progress, it highlights a common will to both “look west” and devise a strategic response to Beijing’s assertive rise, and notably to its Belt and Road Initiative.
Other than their reaction to China’s own presence and influence in Africa and across the Indo-Pacific, different reasons push India and Japan towards deepening the links with the African continent. India needs resources, particularly energy resources, to fuel domestic development and industrialization. Building on older trade, migration – a large Indian diaspora has a long history in Africa, particularly in the East and in the South – and political ties, the revitalisation of relations went through three successive India-Africa Forum Summits (IAFS), with a growing participation among African leaders (from 15 in 2008 to 41 in 2015). Prime Minister Modi, long attentive to Africa, shifted the prevailing narrative from India as a development partner of Africa to the notion of a common partnership for global issues (climate change, security, agriculture and others), stressing that Africa itself can crucially contribute to India’s own development, most notably via its abundant energy potential. Oil and gas imports make up 60 per cent of total trade exchanges, which have gradually expanded. But security has also become a priority, with cooperation initiatives in fighting piracy and terrorism. In 2019, for example, a first joint military exercise with twelve African nations took place. In the global geopolitical competition for Africa, however, India’s main limits include its financial, industrial and technological constraints.
Geopolitical goals are high in Tokyo’s agenda, as mentioned. They also led it to establish a military base in Djibouti and to court African countries in other to gain support for reforming the United Nations’ Security Council, with the aim of obtaining a permanent seat. But one of Japan’s key drivers is the search for new markets for its exports. Nigeria and South Africa are its main trade partners and among the key investment destinations south of the Sahara. Even prior to China and India, as far back as 1993 the country devised a platform for periodic meetings with African counterparts. Known as the Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD), it involves multilateral organisations such as the African Union, the World Bank and the United Nations. Originally focused on development assistance, TICAD has gradually evolved from a relationship solely or mostly based on aid and on a donor-recipients notion, to one grounded on an egalitarian partnership, if still de facto an asymmetric one. A core part of Japan’s infrastructure-building involvements has targeted corridors linking landlocked countries to regional ports, such as the Nacala corridor (connecting Zambia and Malawi to Mozambican coast), the East African Northern corridor (linking Rwanda, Uganda and the Kenyan interior to the port of Mombasa) or the West Africa Growth Ring (in this case connecting landlocked zones and different coastal areas). While the amount of resources China devotes to the continent is virtually unmatchable, when compared to India, Japan can count on more substantial economic resources and a much stronger industrial and technological appeal as well as closer if only partially alignment to Western countries’ agendas.
Driven by both shared and distinctive goals, Japan and India thus add to and somehow try to challenge the Chinese expansion in Africa. In a scenario that also include several players from other world regions and has quickly turned crowded as never before, African countries will have to carefully balance risks and opportunities, and learn to respond consequentially.