SPEAKING FREELY China-Japan rivalry plays out in Africa
By Seifudein Adem
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click hereif you are interested in contributing.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited Ivory Coast, Mozambique and Ethiopia from January 9 to January 14, while Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited Ethiopia, Djibouti,
Ghana, and Senegal from January 7 to January 11. The two visits took place almost simultaneously not long after the deterioration of relationship between the two countries over islands in the East China Sea and controversy following Abe's visit to the Yakusuni Shrine in December 2013.
However, more than the timing of the visits and recent tensions, it was remarks by Prime Minister Abe that turned Africa into a diplomatic battleground between Japan and China in the first month of the new year.
On January 12, said in Maputo, Mozambique, in a barely disguised reference to China, that Japan will not just extract resources from Africa but also create jobs.
What said in Maputo sounded suspiciously similar to what former secretary of state Hillary Clinton had said in June 2011 in Lusaka, Zambia: "We saw that during the colonial times, it is easy to come in, take out natural resources, pay off leaders and leave. We don't want to see a new colonialism."
Japan's daily newspaper, The Yomiuri Shimbun, elaborated on what Abe meant:
In recent years, China has drastically expanded its presence in Africa with investments and loans. But the country has been criticized for unilaterally diverting resources and profits from Africa to itself. Many Chinese companies import workers from China to work in Africa - a practice that does not help in increasing local employment.
Because China sends large number of its nationals to work in Africa not just where semi-skilled and skilled workers are needed but also where unskilled laborers could do the job, this issue is regarded as the Achilles' heel of China's diplomacy in Africa. One can see why the Chinese leaders took offense at the prime minister's remark.
In reaction to Abe's Africa visit, the spokesperson of China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Hua Chunying, fired a warning shot on January 10, saying: "... if there is any country out there that attempts to make use of Africa for rivalry, the country is making a wrong decision."
Japan's response, in the words of Hiroshige Seko, deputy chief cabinet secretary in the Japanese government, included: "Wherever he goes, Prime Minister Abe is asked if he is [in Africa] to compete against China, but that's not our intention at all."
Following Abe's remark about China's apparent reluctance to create jobs in Africa, Hong Lei, spokesperson of China's Foreign Ministry, in turn said: "Japan claims to boost employment in Africa, but how do you do that if there is no industry to support? We will wait to see how far the aid program Abe promised will go."
Clearly, Beijing seems worried that the image of China as a giant vacuum cleaner that is good only for sucking Africa's resources may stick.
China's protest became less diplomatic in Addis Ababa, the last-leg of Abe's Africa visit when China's Ambassador to Ethiopia and Permanent Representative to the African Union, Xie Xiaoyan, said, "Abe has become the biggest troublemaker in Asia". Abe's visit to Africa was part and parcel of a "China containment policy".
On January 12, on the same day Abe made his controversial remarks in Zambia, part of Addis Ababa was virtually transformed into a mini-battleground between China and Japan. This was how The Washington Post reported the story on January 15:
The Chinese disdain for Abe's visit here went past a political level. On Sunday, Chinese activists brawled with Japanese embassy security in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, as they took pictures of the embassy and protested Abe's visit. Chinese activists had collected signatures from among the thousands of Chinese nationals living in Ethiopia and tried to submit it to the embassy to protest the shrine visit. Eyewitnesses in Addis Ababa told The Associated Press that Chinese construction workers erected a sign or banner that said "Sankaku [sic] Island belongs to us," a reference to disputed islands both nations claim. The witnesses, who insisted on anonymity out of fear of reprisals, said the sign was taken down before Abe's convoy passed by.
In scheduling Abe's visit to the three African countries at roughly the same time as the visit by China's foreign minister to some of the same countries, was Tokyo seeking to distract the attention from the visit by the Chinese high-level delegation to the continent?
We don't know for sure what was in the minds of Japan's decision-makers any more than we know what was in the minds of their Chinese counterparts. Yet, if the Japanese side had thought that the visit by their prime minister would overshadow that of the foreign minister, they were clearly proven wrong.
In coverage of Abe's visit, the fact that it was taking place almost simultaneously with that of Foreign Minister Wang Yi was almost always mentioned. Helping to attract attention, Abe gave his most important policy speech about Africa in the headquarters of the African Union - a building known among many Africans as China's gift to Africa.
China in 2012 had about seven times as much trade with Africa as Japan had, which translates into considerably more political and economic clout in the continent for Beijing. China and Japan also pursue policies in Africa that are divergent in some ways. It is also arguable, however, that there is a connection between Japan's diplomacy in China and China's diplomacy in Africa.
In its economic activities in Africa, China has lately been practicing what it had learned from Japan over the years as an aid recipient. If Japan is indeed the genesis of China's economic diplomacy in Africa in this way, the implications are significant. For one thing, it would mean that China's economic approach is less radical than it is widely believed. What this also means is that Africa could serve as an arena of cooperation among China, Japan and Africa in which all would benefit - more or less.
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's regular contributors.
Dr Seifudein Adem is an associate director and associate research professor at the Institute for Global Cultural Studies at SUNY Binghamton, NY; his recent books include China's Diplomacy in Eastern and Southern Africa, Afrasia: A Tale of Two Continents and Black Orientalism and Pan-African Thought: Ali A Mazrui and His Critics Volume III.