Given their external orientations, especially towards Africa, it is no surprise that the competition between Asian superpowers such as China, India, and Japan has spread beyond their immediate region in search of new markets for trade and investment. Such rivalry reveals the magnitude of these powers’ interest in Africa.
Africa is rich in mineral resources and renewable energy that help fuel the industrialized world’s advancement. It accounts for over 40 percent of global diamond production, 80 percent of platinum output, and 20 percent of global cobalt and gold production. The UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) estimates that Africa holds 10 percent of the world’s crude oil reserves. West Africa, the Great Lakes region, and North Africa account for about 8 percent of the world’s natural gas reserves.
Africa’s strategic location, with its many land and sea borders and trade routes, makes it a focal point of global rivalries. Rather than fighting each other directly, world powers vie for sway over the continent’s resources and politics. Furthermore, by 2030, the continent is projected to house nearly a quarter of the global workforce and consumer market, making it an appealing partner for governments around the world.
Overall, the significance of Asian powers’ engagement with Africa stems from a number of factors, chief among which is that their alliances with African countries serve their interests and fulfill their development needs, as can be detailed as follows:
China: Beijing is attempting to advance its interests in Africa in order to position itself for a potential conflict with the United States. To do this, it is wooing African countries to its side through investments and political stability, rejecting both the practice of meddling in other countries’ internal affairs under the guise of democracy and the use of unilateral sanctions, such as those the United States used against Eritrea for meddling in the Ethnic Conflict.
Despite US warnings about Beijing’s presence in Africa, the recent tour of the Chinese Foreign Minister in Africa may have demonstrated Beijing’s insistence on strengthening its partnership with the continent. Beijing made an effort to appear as a responsible global power by taking effective steps during that tour, engaging with issues like the Ethiopian peace process and raising its interest in regional issues of independence and territorial integrity that are important to those countries.
Japan: Japan’s foreign policy towards Africa was viewed as an extension of its pursuit of a global role, the strengthening of its position as a major Asian power in the continent, as well as a commitment of efforts to amass resources. With the launch of Tokyo’s “Green Revolution for Africa” initiative to help fight famine and drought as well as other issues relating to human security, Japan’s foreign policy underwent a change in the mid-1980s, moving from commercial to humanitarian diplomacy.
In addition, the Japanese agenda for Africa has economic components, primarily aimed at trying to secure markets for its goods and taking advantage of the economic opportunities in Africa due to the challenges it faces, including the recession, the desire to lessen the effects of population aging, and its desire to diversify its sources of energy and mineral resources. This is what led it, for instance, to help make the Sahel and Sahara countries more stable in order to draw Japanese investment.
The Japanese interest in Africa is also driven by Tokyo’s concern that the pandemic’s effects will weaken African economies and cause them to become more dependent on Chinese aid. As a result, it worked to establish a balanced strategy in the face of Beijing. The conflict between Russia and Ukraine also contributed to the strengthening of this trend, as Tokyo sought to counteract African bias in favor of Russia in UN decisions and prevent the formation of a bloc later on that would support Beijing on important issues like the disputes between Tokyo and Beijing over ownership of the Senkaku Islands in the western Pacific Ocean and the South China Sea.
India: The shared experience of colonialism is a major factor in the ties that bind India and African countries today, along with the desire to create a more just global order, concerns about the environment that both regions face, and a general rejection of Western policies. This created a tendency for cooperation between India and South Asian countries, let alone India’s motivations stemming from strategic concerns about trade, security, and confronting China. India is attempting to position itself as a credible military and economic rival to China.
Significantly, the confrontation with the growing Chinese expansion, especially through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), was the impetus for India and Japan’s focus on Africa. Tokyo and New Delhi are also making efforts to coordinate their economic and strategic goals. For instance, they fought the BRI by launching the $200 billion Asia Africa Growth Corridor (AAGC), which aimed to build high-quality infrastructure complemented by digital communications.
However, a major flaw of this corridor is the lack of investments that are on par with the BRI in terms of scale and quality. Chinese investments, on the other hand, are based on government directives and the idea of cash in exchange for infrastructure and resources, whereas Indian and Japanese investments depend on the private sector and skill development as the foundation for sustainable development. It is frequently argued that China interferes with India and Japan’s interests in Africa by acquiring sizable amounts of industrial, mining, and agricultural land.
Indicators of Rivalry
Taking a closer look at the rivalry between Asian superpowers, we see a few key indicators that point to the intensifying competition:
- Competition for Development and Upgrading Infrastructure
In this context, we can bring up China’s activities in Africa, including leasing ports, lending money, building infrastructure through the BRI infrastructure projects, and agricultural development. In contrast, Japanese aid is focused on development. Thanks to its grants and development aid, Tokyo has become the first donor country to Africa since the 1990s.
The Japanese constitution’s ban on the sale of arms served as the foundation for Tokyo’s developmental approach to Africa. Given this, Tokyo was successful in the 1990s in concentrating its aid to Africa on infrastructure, where it helped build ports and railways given how important these were to the continent’s economic development.
In recent years, this trend has swung more and more in favor of China, but Tokyo is reversing this by offering an alternative to Chinese lending and investment to African countries. Additionally, in August 2022, Tokyo committed to spending $30 billion on professional development for Africans, food production, and green growth. Furthermore, Japan announced the allocation of about $1 billion to support the debt restructuring of African countries within the framework of the TICAD; however, this amount pales in comparison to the $40 billion that China announced during the China-Africa Cooperation Forum in 2021.
Besides, the recent TICAD 8 conference in Tunisia saw the announcement of $30 billion in public and private financial contributions from Tokyo toward solving various problems and investing in people and the quality of growth in Africa.
In addition to its interest in trade, refined petroleum products, and pharmaceuticals on the continent, India is one of the top five investors in Africa, with a total investment of about $74 billion. In 2021–2022, Indian trade with Africa increased to $89.5 billion from $56 billion the year before. Unlike the Chinese strategy, which is based on state leadership and prioritizes improving local skills and productivity, Indian activity in Africa is focused on the private sector.
- Soft Power
The Covid-19 pandemic has brought to light the significance of soft power in fostering relationships in order to provide development aid and tools to fight the pandemic and control its spread. Japan also provided funding for students and offered karate classes, but China still managed to outmaneuver them. In this vein, Beijing has established approximately 46 Confucius Institutes throughout Africa to teach Chinese language and culture. Thousands of members of the ruling party, government employees, and unionists from Africa are also sent to China to attend political training institutions.
This distinguishes what China and Japan provide. The Chinese model involves direct state cooperation with the ruling parties in Africa, regardless of whether or not those parties adhere to particular principles like the democratic values adopted by Japan. For this reason, China is frequently accused of supporting repressive governments. In contrast, the Japanese model of cooperation is pluralistic in that it involves not only government but also civil society, NGOs, and international organizations like the UNDP and the African Development Bank.
India’s soft power in Africa has been manifested through its health care diplomacy during the pandemic, as it donated vaccines to numerous countries, thereby solidifying its comparative advantage as the world’s pharmacy in contrast to Western powers that hoarded vaccines. India has also emerged as a medical tourism destination for African countries, with African tourists visiting India for medical treatment increasing from 5.4 percent of total tourist visits in 2010 to 15.4 percent in 2019.
Additionally, by fostering digital communication relations to allow African nations to benefit from Indian technological superiority, India gained another comparative advantage in the struggle for influence in Africa.
- Armament and Military Presence
In that ballpark, China’s arms exports to Africa sat. China’s share of armaments supplied to sub-Saharan Africa increased from less than a tenth in the years between 2010 and 2015 to nearly a quarter of the total.
In addition to the 15 countries where private Chinese military and security firms conduct business, 17 African countries are said to have received Chinese weapons between 2018 and 2021, according to a RAND Corporation report.
In order to combat piracy, China is attempting to bolster its military presence through its military base in Djibouti, but this raises questions about how gradually it may transform into establishing a chain of naval bases that extend to the Atlantic coast. According to reports, Beijing is looking to establish a base in West Africa to benefit from oil production there in its economic development, particularly given the region’s proximity to the US east coast.
On the other hand, some people think that China’s naval efforts are concentrated in the South China Sea, despite the fact that Chinese naval forces have taken part in other operations, such as the 2011 evacuation of thousands of people from Libya and the rescue of hundreds of ships in Yemen.
In addition, there are thousands of UN personnel serving in South Sudan and Mali’s peacekeeping forces, and Chinese warships frequently call at African ports. In effect, China has a naval squadron that accompanies the majority of Chinese ships transiting the Gulf of Aden.
When it comes to matters of security and the military, we find that Tokyo takes a narrow approach. It has contributed millions of dollars to the effort to combat terrorism in Africa and actively takes part in the multinational naval force that patrols the seas close to Somalia.
For its part, India is building a vast network of radars in the Indian Ocean to help it monitor shipping lanes across the ocean. In order to demonstrate its capabilities, it is also working to arm nations in the region, including Mauritius, and to set up a naval and air base on one of Madagascar’s islands. India also plays a significant role in funding UN peacekeeping operations in Africa.
- Diplomatic Support
China has sent a special envoy to the Horn of Africa to monitor its expanding interests in the region, particularly those connected to the BRI.
Since the Horn of Africa serves as the entry point for Chinese trade into the Gulf of Aden and Europe, China may thus play a role in bringing about political and security stability by assisting peace negotiations between the countries of that region and fostering consensus and coordination for joint action.
Since the Horn of Africa serves as the entry point for Chinese trade into the Gulf of Aden and Europe, China may thus play a role in bringing about political and security stability by assisting peace negotiations between the countries of that region and fostering consensus and coordination for joint action, which ultimately serves and promotes Chinese interests.
The holding of summit conferences like the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, the Japanese TICAD Conference, and the India-Africa Forum Summit are signs of Asian powers’ interest in Africa.
Additionally, those powers concur on the need to reform the UN in order to win over African nations by supporting a permanent African seat on the Security Council. This stance appears to have aided China, for instance, in gaining support from African countries during the UN vote on Taiwan, which could lead to increased financial support for African countries from China.
In a nutshell, the Asian competition in Africa and the acceptance of this Asian presence by many African countries were driven by the fact that these countries have no colonial history that would have influenced their perspectives on cooperating nations. This makes it possible for some African countries to gain from Asian foreign investment, promote trade and expertise, and make contributions in the areas of education, infrastructure, tourism, and health. The rivalry between these superpowers has helped some African countries diversify their diplomatic ties and advance internationally, putting them in a better position to advance their national interests through their partnerships with the top nations in the global economic hierarchy.