1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Japan ramps up aid to Africa to weaken China's grip

September 7, 2022

Tokyo has announced an ambitious multibillion-dollar program of economic assistance to Africa, in a bid to counter Beijing's growing economic and political influence.

Delegates attend the opening session of the eighth Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD) in Tunisia's capital Tunis on August 27, 2022
The Tokyo International Conference on African Development was held in Tunisia this yearImage: Fethi Belaid/POOL/AFP/Getty Images

Japan is ramping up its aid and economic assistance to African nations, with Tokyo recently promising $30 billion (€30.24 billion) to help develop the continent over the next three years. 

The financial commitment was unveiled at the Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD), which was hosted by the Japanese government in Tunisia over two days in late August.

First organized in 1993, TICAD has traditionally been held in Japan but this year moved to the North African country due to concerns about the COVID pandemic.  

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida delivered the opening speech from Tokyo, where he was recovering from a bout of the virus, emphasizing to delegates that Japan intends to use its wealth to invest in Africa's human capital and foster high-quality and sustainable development across the continent.  

Even though Kishida did not comment on China or Russia, it is clear that Tokyo's latest economic assistance is designed to push back against growing Chinese and Russian influence in the region.  

How is China affecting Japan's Africa policy?

In recent years, Japanese diplomats in African nations have been busy warning their host governments of the potential pitfalls of accepting what appears on the surface to be generous economic assistance from Beijing.

Tunisia's President Kais Saied and Japan's Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi attend the opening session of the eighth Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD) in Tunisia's capital Tunis
At the TICAD conference, Japan promised $30 billion to help develop Africa over the next three yearsImage: Fethi Belaid/POOL/AFP/Getty Images

Critics say that the Chinese aid on offer too often takes the form of huge loans for grand infrastructure projects, including commercial ports, strategic airfields, railways, bridges and highways. They argue that when the recipient nations fall behind in their debt repayments, state-run Chinese companies could be quick to step in to take over control of the assets. 

Japan and other nations are particularly concerned about strategically-located facilities with potential dual uses coming under Beijing's control, such as the Hambantota Port in Sri Lanka. The government in Colombo borrowed $1 billion from China 20 years ago to build the facility.

But when the project became economically unviable and Sri Lanka could not repay the loan, it agreed to give China a controlling equity stake in the port and a 99-year lease for operating it.

However, Beijing rejects accusations it is pursuing such "debt-trap diplomacy," and alleges that it's a narrative promoted by some in the West to tarnish China's global image.

In August, Wang Wenbin, a spokesperson for China's Foreign Ministry, slammed the Chinese debt trap claims, saying that Western officials and media are seeking to drive a wedge between China and other developing nations by leveling such allegations, state-run tabloid the Global Times reported.

As Beijing tries to boost its trade and investment ties with Africa, pledging $40 billion in financing to the continent in 2021, Tokyo is increasingly worried about China's increasing sway in the region.

"The biggest reason behind Japan's aid is obviously China," said Akitoshi Miyashita, a professor of international relations at Tokyo International University. "Kishida is very concerned that Japan — and other developed nations — are falling behind Beijing when it comes to appealing to governments in Africa." 

There is similar concern about Russia's influence in Africa as well. "Russia is courting China, India and a number of countries in Africa to express their support for its actions in Ukraine, so clearly there is a strong political motivation for Japan to do more in Africa," Miyashita pointed out. 

Why is Japan deeply concerned?

Stephen Nagy, an associate professor of international relations at Tokyo's International Christian University, concurred that Japan is "deeply concerned" about China's growing influence in Africa.

But he stressed that the concern was partly driven by its own trade worries. 

"China has been extremely proactive in the Republic of the Congo and other countries with large deposits of the rare earth minerals that are critical to modern technology," he said.

"Japan is working hard to make sure that China does not obtain a monopoly on those resources, which would cause serious problems for Japanese companies."

Tokyo's aim is to create a broad-based coalition of nations that share its calls for a rules-based international order, free and open ocean trading routes and a commitment to joint development.

Japan fears China does not share the same goals and wants to reshape the international order in a way that suits Beijing's interests.

"China is becoming very powerful and politically influential and they use their overseas investments and assistance to further that ambition," said Haruko Noguchi, a professor of health economics at Waseda University. "But Japan thinks and acts very differently." 

What's the difference between Chinese and Japanese aid?

Noguchi has served as an adviser to the Japanese government on aid to African countries, including to schools in Burkina Faso.

"The program there was to create a greater community in schools, to involve parents and other people in these villages, and we were able to determine that this helped children's health and academic outcomes," she said.

"Empowerment has a very positive impact on children's well-being." 

It is this sort of assistance that Japan is likely to focus its efforts on, she said, rather than the construction of airports and port infrastructure.  

"We see the future of Africa in the empowerment of its people and the development of their human capital," she said. "And yes, that might mean that Japanese companies miss out on huge construction projects, but I hope that in the future, a child who has benefited from our aid might rise to a leadership role in these countries. And that is when Japanese aid will pay off."

Edited by: Srinivas Mazumdaru

Julian Ryall
Julian Ryall Journalist based in Tokyo, focusing on political, economic and social issues in Japan and Korea