Last week, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe finished a three-country tour of Africa with an aim to create new opportunities for Japanese companies on the continent, a promise of dramatically increased loans and a pledge to bolster Tokyo’s role in the maintenance of peace and security there. Abe’s visit, which took him to Cote d’Ivoire, Mozambique and Ethiopia, was the first trip to sub-Saharan Africa by a Japanese leader since former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi toured the continent in 2006.
Abe’s renewed focus on Africa is driven by a range of factors but can be loosely characterized as an attempt to diversify traditional Japanese efforts on the continent, focused on soft power or “checkbook” diplomacy
through massive overseas development assistance
(ODA), without necessarily abandoning this hallmark of Japanese diplomacy. In fact, Abe bolstered Tokyo’s financial commitments to Africa during his trip, announcing that Japan would over the next five years double its loans to Africa, from $1 billion to $2 billion, for the development of infrastructure and other areas. This builds on the pledges of last year’s Fifth Tokyo International Conference on African Development, through which Japan has been pushing a two-pronged approach to overseas loans that focus on African ownership complemented by international partnership and high-level policy dialogue between leaders.
This emphasis on linking ODA to private-sector interests in both Africa and Japan has been labeled “enhanced private sector assistance.” Abe gave teeth to this policy during this recent trip, as demonstrated by his accompanying entourage of more than 50 business executives from Japan. In Mozambique, Abe earmarked nearly $700 million over the next five years to help build the geostrategic country’s capacity to export natural gas supplies to Japan. Energy security concerns continue to be critical for Japan, which is the world’s largest importer of liquefied natural gas, due to the country’s combination of supply-side constraints caused by its idle nuclear power plants as well as considerable sanctions hindering the amount of crude oil imports from Iran. During his time in Cote d’Ivoire, Abe gushed about opportunities for Japanese investment in Western Africa, a region with a population more than double that of Japan.
But Abe also stepped up Tokyo’s engagement on key security issues affecting the continent. During his speech to the African Union in Ethiopia, Abe declared that Africa’s security is critical to broader international security issues affecting Japan, while pledging $320 million to the organization to lend support on issues ranging from conflicts to natural disasters. Included in this are further commitments to provide financial assistance in conflict areas such as the Central African Republic and South Sudan.
Japan’s efforts in South Sudan, where it has deployed more than 400 Self-Defense Forces (SDF), are especially significant for a number of reasons. The SDF are operating under the rubric of the United Nations Mission in the Republic of South Sudan and are largely engineers concentrated in the South Sudanese capital of Juba. However, the security situation in South Sudan is becoming increasingly volatile, and there are now reasonable concerns that deployed SDF could be in danger if the unrest spirals into a protracted civil war or greater regional conflict.
Less dangerous, but more costly, are Japan’s continued efforts to stem piracy around the Horn of Africa. Tokyo currently deploys a number of destroyers and P-C3 patrol aircraft to ensure the safe passage of Japanese vessels as mandated under the country’s anti-piracy legislation. According to a Ministry of Defense white paper, the Maritime Self-Defense Force has escorted more than 2,600 vessels without incident since starting operations in 2009. Additionally, the P-C3s have flown nearly 700 surveillance missions around the strategic waters. Japan’s emphasis on contributing to anti-piracy methods was on full display with Abe’s decision last summer to visit Djibouti, where the P-C3 aircraft are based.
The domestic and international context of Japan’s engagement is also crucial. The trip comes amid growing diplomatic competition between Japan and China for influence in the world. For example, Abe spent much of his first year in office visiting emerging markets in Southeast Asia and the Middle East, some of which are traditional strongholds of Beijing. With regard to Africa however, Tokyo still has to play catch-up, which partly explains its desire to engage more holistically on economic and security issues. Over the past five years, Japan has been averaging more than $4 billion in foreign direct investment to Africa. This number is steadily climbing, but still pales in comparison to what other OECD countries have invested there and is just a fraction of the $16 billion that China had invested by the end of 2011.
Abe’s security efforts on the continent also indicate that Tokyo is committed to changing its role in international security. This is accompanied by a host of defense and security reforms that the Abe administration announced at the end of last year, including reinterpreting Japan’s right to collective self-defense and changing the interpretation of the constitution to allow the SDF to expand its role abroad in such missions.
Tokyo has since looked to quiet concerns in Beijing and Seoul
, and a draft report released this fall limits the scope of collective self-defense to responding to armed attacks that are launched on Japan or cases where there are no other appropriate means to take, and insists that any actions taken in exercising the right must be the minimum necessary.
While it would be an exaggeration to say that Abe is pivoting to Africa, Japan has charted out a multilayered approach to its engagement on the continent. Traditionally, Japan has been more active in Africa—through ODA and diplomatic initiatives—than have most other countries in the OECD. Despite this, Japan appears to recognize that the status quo in Africa is no longer viable if Japan is to secure markets and build partnerships. As Abe concluded in his speech in Addis Abbas last week, “Africa has now become the continent that carries the hopes of the world.”
J. Berkshire Miller is a fellow on Japan for the Pacific Forum CSIS.