YOKOHAMA – The fifth Tokyo International Conference on African Development, Japan’s official channel to the continent, kicks off Saturday with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe planning to pledge up to ¥3.2 trillion in total aid over the next five years.
The promise of additional financing comes as Japan seeks to increase its visibility in Africa, as Asian rivals like China already have a huge presence and India and South Korea seek to strengthen their own relations with the continent and tap its vast potential.
Japanese companies view Africa as a potential of abundant business opportunities thanks to a growing middle class, fossil fuel resources and rare metals needed for the high-tech sector. But the continent, which still faces poverty and conflicts, requires international assistance in many basic areas.
Included in the new aid is ¥650 billion for public works infrastructure development, especially for urban design, and industrial training for 30,000 people, including scholarships and internships at Japanese universities for 1,000 students. In sub-Saharan Africa, funds will be used to train local farmers to increase rice production to 28 million tons by 2018.
Around 50 African leaders will be in Yokohama for the three-day TICAD conference, the fifth of its kind. Themes to be discussed include trade, investment, the empowerment of women and peace-building, the latter topic of special concern to Tokyo given the January hostage crisis in Algeria that left 10 Japanese dead.
The conference is also expected to review the last two decades, and suggest what new approaches are needed and where Japan might better focus its development assistance efforts.
For Japan, the quinquennial TICAD is the primary forum to increase its influence in a part of the world that China in particular has made relations a diplomatic and trade priority in recent years. And it’s paid off: Trade between Africa and China was worth $138.6 billion in 2011, eclipsing Japan’s $27.8 billion with the continent that year.
For many African nations, one of the fundamental messages for Japan is the need for its government to recognize that the Africa of today is not the same continent it was in 1993, when the first TICAD meeting was held.
There is a need, they will tell Tokyo, for aid programs that do more than just focus on providing high-tech products and services if Japan wants to benefit from the continent’s growth potential, and it needs to ensure that a wide range of Africans, especially its workforce, benefit from Japanese investment.
“Africa is more impressed with a partner that will base its relations on equal terms and mutual benefit, as China does,” Consultancy Africa Intelligence said in a May 2012 report on the Sino-Japanese rivalry in Africa.
On Friday, Abe met with a long procession of African leaders in advance of Saturday’s opening sessions. He will also hold a summit with the African leaders to discuss U.N. Security Council reform, in the hope of receiving African support for Japan’s bid to become a permanent member.
Also Friday, a special session on Somalia was held on combating piracy in the Gulf of Aden that threatens ships passing through Somalian waters on their way to and from the Suez Canal. Last year, there were 75 incidents of piracy in the gulf, or a quarter of all acts of piracy committed worldwide that year. Fourteen ships off Somalia were boarded and some 250 crew members were taken hostage.