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China versus Japan: Asian competition in Africa

23rd May 2012

By: In On Africa IOA


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Interest in Africa may have originated for various reasons, but the initial fervour for and attachment that China and Japan formed to Africa may have originated from regional Asian competition for power. This interest has grown and has taken on various meanings for China, Japan and Africa, thus raising the questions of how the various relationships accommodate all players concerned, which relationship is most supportive for Africa, and which relationship has proven to be most successful.

To attempt to answer these questions this CAI paper discusses the historical value of the Chinese-African and Japanese-African relationships, followed by an explanation of Chinese and Japanese foreign policy towards Africa. This brief comparative study then aims to conclude which partnership is better for and most successful in Africa.


Chinese and Japanese involvement in Africa, a contemporary history

China’s interest in Africa may occur for three simultaneous reasons; one, pragmatic bilateral relations, two, regional competition and three, the objective to develop the African countries involved in partnerships with China. China has been involved in official diplomatic interactions since the formation of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) Government in 1949. Its contemporary African interactions find their origin in the historic interactions of aiding African Governments in their liberation struggles and helping them achieve their independent aspirations. China found it easy to appeal to African sentiments of Western domination and imperialism, as China too experienced Western and Asian domination.(2)


Japanese interactions have been based on two aspects; an economic interplay that created an “asymmetric interdependence,”(3) and the manner in which the actors achieve communication through cultural exchanges. The focus has remained on achieving continuity in a post-Cold War era, fundamental to Japan’s vital interests.(4) Japan thus appeared most pragmatic, through its domination of interaction.

The tensions between China and Japan originate from reciprocated aggression caused by regional security concerns. While this underlying aggression between the two has been an open topic, economic tensions are not discussed openly. China and Japan have experienced intense economic competition since China’s economic growth began to rise sharply in the 1990s, threatening Japan’s immediate economic position and relationship with other Asian countries.(5) For decades, China and Japan were each other’s top trading partners, each complimenting the other’s economy. But when China’s growth expanded exponentially, Japan’s high tech industries were no match for the low cost expanding services that China offered.(6) Particularly with the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), each country formed a counter plan that included itself and ASEAN members, and excluded the rival. For example the Chinese pursued the China-ASEAN dialogue in 2003, aimed at improving political cooperation in the East Asia community. This was countered by The Tokyo declaration (TAC) in 2004, in which Japan included itself in the original arrangement, then created a new arrangement in 2008, invigorating trade and investment. This was followed by a Chinese pledge to fortify trade and investment.(7) This competition has since focused on bilateral and multilateral economic relations.

Both China and Japan have tried to infiltrate Africa by forming organisations and interactions similar to those formed with ASEAN, namely the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) and Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD). The creation of the multilateral level exchange conference TICAD, in 1993, portrayed continued support for Africa because the conference would be held every five years, but instead soon transformed into a forum for multilateral collaboration and development.(8) The Chinese organisation FOCAC, which was established in 2000, aimed to combat the negative effects of globalisation and achieve sustainability through development. Although it also bases its relations on logical pragmatic values, it underlined the importance of mutual benefit and equality for all parties involved.(9) In comparison, TICAD’s valuable principles and success stories are aimed to empower rural and developed communities socially as well as economically,(10) while FOCAC boasted greater successes even though the orientation of these successes remained economic with interaction being a social side-effect.(11)

The Chinese confident advance on Africa

China has turned into a global competitor that contributes to the global economy with ease. Through high-level trade, overseas and regional investment, China earned the spot of “world’s second-largest economy” in 2011, surpassing Japan.(12) This position was improved with the aid of African business and investment, among others. But the high profile Sino-African relationship has received greater attention in terms of what implications the relationship may have for Africa, thus focusing on a negative connotation instead of the positive potential the relationship may produce.(13)

China’s Africa foreign policy finds its roots in the five principles of peaceful coexistence, a benchmark for all Chinese bilateral and multilateral engagements: “one, mutual respect for territorial integrity and governance, two, mutual non-aggression, three, mutual non-interference at each other’s internal affairs, four, equality and mutual benefits, and five, peaceful coexistence.”(14) China has further demonstrated this stance by practicing this equality in its investments and loans by attaching low-interest or interest-free conditions, training for African staff, aims of sustainability, and an increase in the general standard of living. Yet, China’s other hands-on qualities, which include full involvement in investments, provision of equipment and staff, and a poor record of human rights practices, raises concerns over the underlying costs of this relationship. With this in mind, it becomes simple to overlook the positive aspects of China’s hands-on involvement that sincerely promises “equality and mutual benefit, practical results, a variety of cooperation forms, and common progress.”(15)

Chinese interaction in Africa has taken place in three forms - aid, investment and trade. Since 2007, Chinese-African trade has focused predominantly on bringing manufactured items into Africa, whilst African-Chinese trade is focused mainly on the extraction of minerals, mostly fuels.(16) China’s greatest involvements have been in hydrocarbon producing countries such as Sudan and Angola. Given that China is one of the world’s biggest energy consumers, their principal interest in the Sudanese and Angolan oil industries is both understandable and paramount. In Sudan, China contributes to 68.3% of Sudanese exports, mostly from the petroleum sector, and 21.7% of Sudanese imports, mostly manufactured products.(17) Similarly in Angola, China is responsible for the purchase of Angolan petroleum products to the value of 42.8% of Angolan exports, and 14% of its imports.(18)

Looking towards a non-energy producing economy, China’s involvement in South Africa is focused on infrastructure, the extraction industry and some service industries such as banking. China remains South Africa’s premier trading partner, contributing up to 13.7% to its exports and 13.4% to its imports.(19) In 2011, South African bank, Standard Bank, struck large deals to finance Chinese projects in Africa.(20) Other than the above, China has many lucrative investments and conducts its business in most states on the African continent.(21)

The subtle Japanese courtship of Africa

Japan’s foreign policy is based on three pillars; the promotion of free trade, securing natural resources necessary for survival, and the promotion of Japanese infrastructure. The first pillar is focused on regional economic affairs, for example the Asian and Australasian bloc, whilst the second pillar is focused on deepening the existing relations between Japan and other resource rich countries (this excludes African partnerships). However, the third pillar places an emphasis on improving Africa with Japanese technology. This African emphasis is increasingly important to Japan because it has recognised the importance of and a market for infrastructure creation and revitalisation.(22) This creates a superficial impression that the Japanese cannot benefit mutually from the African states, as opposed to the Chinese who clearly outline their stance and repeat it frequently in their diplomatic rhetoric. However, when considering Japan’s Africa foreign policy, one can see other facets through the TICAD programme that highlight the Japanese Africa foreign policy objectives clearly; “Boosting economic growth, ensuring ‘human security’, including the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and the consolidation of peace and democratisation; and addressing environmental issues and climate change.”(23) This somewhat rectifies the previous negative impression that Japan, portrayed as TICAD, boasts sincere involvement in Africa, in its development economically, politically and socially.(24)

Japanese investment and trade, as opposed to that in China, is based on manufactured goods and metals. For example, Japan’s investments in South Africa consist mostly of automotive parts and products, metals and chemicals industries.(25) Japan remains one of South Africa’s top export partners, contributing 8.7% to total exports, and import partners, with imports at 4.7% of the total since 2009,(26) choosing to focus on the automotive industry, creating more than 80 investment opportunities through companies such as Nissan, Nippon Steel, Itochu & Marubeni, Suzuki Motors, Hanwa, and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries LTD.(27) In Sudan, Japan remains second to China at 12.6 % of the pre-split Sudanese exports.(28) Although one of the smallest energy consuming states, Japan has invested in the Sudanese petroleum industry,(29) opposite to China, the principal shareholder of Sudanese oil.(30)

Concluding statements

The Chinese seem to appeal more to Africa through their historic commonalities, goodwill and rhetoric of placing great importance on equality and an impartial business sense, which may override the bad press Chinese human rights record has received in the past.(31) China is winning the race in Africa by increasing its involvement exponentially but it is difficult to argue whether the compromise of doing business with China will benefit the country more than relations with a transparent Japan. However it proves that the velocity with which China has applied itself to Africa has created numerous benefits for both China and Africa.

In order for Japan to benefit from Africa’s growth potential, perhaps it needs to change its fundamental economic focus on high-tech services and include low cost labour. This may aid Japan in its trade and investment subjects in the developing world and ultimately improve relations and economic transactions. After all, Africa is more impressed with a partner that will base its relations on equal terms and mutual benefit, as China does. Furthermore Africa understands its level of development and thus wishes to enhance its capabilities on its own terms of the respect for its sovereignty and equality. The Chinese understand this and so, have had greater success when arranging collaborations.

Written by Arina Muresan (1)


(1) Contact Arina Muresan through Consultancy Africa Intelligence’s Asia Dimension Unit ( .
(2) ‘The China-Africa Toolkit: A Resource for African Policy Markers’, SAIIA, September 2009,
(3) Adem, S., 2001. ‘Emerging Trends in Japan Africa Relations: An African Perspective’, African Studies Quarterly, 5(2), [online],
(4) Ibid.
(5) Cheol, K.J., ‘Competition among China, Japan and Korea to woo ASEAN’, East Asia Integration Studies, 3 June 2009,
(6) ‘China-Japan rivalry heats up’, NBC News, 13 April 2005,
(7) Ibid.
(8) TICAD website,
(9) FOCAC website,
(10) Ibid.
(11) Ibid.
(12) ‘China country profile’, BBC News, 10 February 2012,
(13) Ibid.
(14) Ibid.
(15) Ibid.
(16) Ibid.
(17) ‘Sudan profile’, CIA Factbook, 12 April 2012,
(18) ‘Angola profile’, CIA Factbook, 12 April 2012,
(19) ‘South Africa profile’, CIA Factbook, 13 April 2012,
(20) ‘China-Africa investment 'picking up pace', Africa Gateway, 2 May 2012,
(21) Ibid.
(22) Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan website,
(23) Ibid.
(24) Ibid.
(25) Department of Foreign Affairs website,
(26) Ibid.
(27) ‘Japan-South Africa Fact Sheet 2010’, Embassy of Japan in South Africa, 2009,
(28) Ibid
(29) ‘China at a glance’, The Telegraph, 10 February 2011,
(30) Ibid.
(31) Ibid.



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