Opinions & Features September 27, 2016 at 06:30 am

Asian Edition: New Scramble for Africa 

Mark Babatunde September 27, 2016 at 06:30 am

September 27, 2016 at 06:30 am | Opinions & Features

Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta welcomes Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the sixth TICAD conference in Nairobi Kenya. Photo Credit: Japan Times
The sixth Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD) was held from August 27th to August 28th in Nairobi, Kenya, and in attendance were heads of government from at least 35 African countries, including Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. The conference’s goal was to increase engagement between Japan and Africa on mutual areas of cooperation.

The conference closed with the Nairobi declaration that hinged on three objectives: promoting economic transformation, a healthful system for quality life, and social stability for shared prosperity. Like all previous TICAD events, Japan tried to emphasize the fact that Africa must take complete ownership of the process for it to succeed.

However, it appears that the TICAD conference organised by an Asian country has managed to tick off another Asian country: China.

China likes to think of itself as being in a serious committed relationship with Africa, and it doesn’t take kindly to having another country — not in the least one from Asia — coming around to sniff for the goodies where it has already staked out its territory.

In recent years, China cannot seem to get enough of Africa. It professes an undying love for Africa, and it has gone to great lengths to prove it.

China’s investment in African economies grew from $7 billion in 2008 to $26 billion in 2013. And in the last decades, successive Chinese premiers have made a point to include African countries as important stops on their itinerary during foreign tours.

Japan, on the other hand, hasn’t been so effusive about its love for Africa, with Abe’s recent visit to Kenya being the first in years by a Japanese PM to Africa.

It must be said, however, that Japan is no newcomer to Africa as they have actively sought to impress their footprint on the continent over the past two decades, with the first TICAD held in Tokyo in 1993 and successive conferences held at five year intervals in 1998, 2003, 2008, and 2013 also in Japan.

Perhaps fearing China’s ubiquitous influence in Africa, though, TICAD VI was moved up one year and held for the first time this year in Nairobi.

A Relationship Ruled By Selfishness?

Chinese officials have criticized Japan (and quite rightly so) for treating Africa disrespectfully for staging all previous TICAD conferences (supposedly meant for Africa) away from Africa.

Second, the Chinese accuse Japan of selfishness by relentlessly using the TICAD forum as an opportunity to get its African friends behind its quest for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. (This is also true.)

Japan’s super power ambitions, more than anything else, is what has got China foaming at the mouth; China cannot bear to see another country in northeast Asia assume a seat on the UN Security Council.

The well-documented animosity between China and Japan goes back hundreds of years, so it would be a shame if Africa’s leaders allow the two Asian giants to use their continent as a proxy battleground in their selfish squabbles reminiscent of the old U.S. vs. Soviet Union Cold War days.

Cut from the Same Cloth

For its part, China claims to be offering a partnership with apparently no strings attached. However, in practice, that has hardly proven to be true.

For example, China reportedly held off aid and investment in Malawi for years because of the latter’s habit of fraternizing with Taiwan. It only opened relations after Malawi — under Joyce Banda as foreign minister — severed ties with Taiwan.

For all of China’s posturing as an alternative to the lopsided relationship Africa has endured with the West, China’s relationship still follows the hackneyed pattern of buying up Africa’s primary commodities in exchange for open markets for China’s manufactured goods — in what many have derided as no different from one of the basic features of colonialism. Even worse, the Chinese have been guilty of dumping goods on occasion.

While Beijing’s decision not to tie its investment or aid grants in Africa to a specific policy guideline is laudable, there is a danger of the pre-conditions-free Chinese aid and investment that sometimes props up rogue regimes that have lost legitimacy with their people. And sometimes its moves are merely calculated to spite the West.

Japan, for its part, is comparatively cozier with the West. Unfortunately, Japan-African trade relations can best be described as redundant, with most of its involvement with Africa taking the form of low interest loans and bilateral aid that often mirrors Western protocol with a host of preconditions and associated terms that must be met or adhered to before doing business.

It is obvious from the actions of both countries that their interest in Africa is little more than a re-enactment of the “old empires” scrambling to grab and share Africa among themselves and/or extend its frontiers of influence.

Either way, their intentions are hardly purely altruistic, and while rational self-interest governs their actions, this is in no way a bad thing.

It just means that Africa as a whole must also adopt a purely mercantile approach in their relations with the two nations. They must cease from getting ahead of themselves. They must shy away from making any pledges or committing to any lofty treaties or agreements with either them unless its decisions are based purely out of pecuniary and pragmatic purposes.

It is clear that the two Asian giants need Africa for its resources and numbers more than Africa needs them. Now is the time for African nations to sit back, enjoy the courting, and make the most of all the attention.

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