Last week, Japan hosted the Seventh Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD) in Yokohama. The forum which has existed since 1993 is co-hosted by the United Nations (UN), United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), World Bank (WB) and the African Union Commission (AUC).
Like any other highly fixture, TICAD came with the expected exhibitions of officialdom.
From elaborate protocol arrangements, watertight security for the most important personalities of Japan-Africa diplomacy, coupled with the inquisitive press corps capturing the chitchatting and pictorial representations of the camaraderie of the diplomatic profession, which is fronted by men and women in suits, TICAD portrayed the typical highly forum of our time.
Apart from this outlook it is important to ask the key questions regarding this conference.
But what was discussed there? How significant was the forum in terms of Japanese relations with the entire African continent and bilaterally? What are the shaping undercurrents defining this forum? How significant is it geopolitically?
On 30 August 2019, the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs summarized the individual bilateral sideline meetings between PM Shinzo Abe and respective heads of African delegations.
In the process, some of the pertinent questions were answered.
The side deliberations typified the increasing impetus to narrow down engagements to the bilateral level. This debunks the olden juxtaposition of Africa “as a country”, an otherwise unhelpful narrative valiantly expressed including by the media and of course the supposed corridors of intellectualism at institutions of higher learning.
Adept to the particularities of local, regional and continental questions several subjects were discussed. These include: traditional peace and security, terrorism, anti-piracy measures in the Horn of Africa, institution building, human resources development, upgrade of water and sanitation facilities, promotion of trade and investment, food security, maritime security and the blue economy, provision of maternal and child health and disaster preparedness in the wake of Ebola and Cyclone Idai in Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe. This vast area of scope depicts the importance of TICAD, whose existence is however shaped by prevailing undercurrents in Africa, Europe and Asia.
Regional politics and Security Council Reform
Apart from the exuding trade and investment focus at TICAD, there was some key lobbying for the UN Security Council reform, at least as depicted by the Japanese official serializations of bilateral meetings.
Any mention of the UNSC reform would seem like a tired topic given its omnipresence at the discussion table at international and regional events.
In terms of the just ended 7th TICAD edition, it is fundamentally important to note that recordings of bilateral deliberations between PM Shinzo Abe and African leaders all made ubiquitous reference to increased cooperation in the international arena including the UNSC reform and the “North Korean situation.”
Explicitly, Japan evidently re-asserted its resolve for inclusion in the UNSC, especially given the strategic nature of the seat, as seen in terms of how China has conveniently utilized the seat for its global clout and reasserting of its power tag especially through veto application, often with the support of Russia!
It is important to note that this heightening call for UNSC reform, comes against the backdrop of similar echoes at the sixth TICAD forum held in Nairobi-Kenya in 2016.
Apart from the regional dynamics of course, these developments depict Japanese bid to checkmate Beijing, given the historically embedded acrimony between the two; which has intensified in the wake of China’s formidable rise in international affairs especially in the last two decades.
Apart from the apparent motives for the UNSC reform, by the Japanese and of course others like the Germans in Europe, the undying debate however continues steadfast including in Africa.
While South Africa and Nigeria have been the frontrunners for the reform agenda, East African giants’-Kenya which has been on a charm offensive presenting propositions for the coveted “African seat”.
In terms of international affairs, this has depicted every forum under the sun, as convenient for the UNSC reform, especially for contending aspirants seeking to reassert their national interests and international clout!
Generally, a defining feature of Japanese involvement in Africa, regards its focus on human security issues bilaterally and multilaterally.
This marked leaning to human security issues, is fundamental given the Japanese elevation of the previously tamed “low zones of politics” before their marked rise especially at the end of the Cold War and in the past two decades especially.
Globally, the focus now on Sustainable Development Goals, which include targets on climate change, poverty reduction among a hotchpotch of identified key areas marks the new security focus at the international and national level through increased resource allocation and political commitment.
Diplomacy is no longer about the attendant ceremonialism of carefully crafted speech and preponderance to hard security issues which are the guarantors of national peace and stability.
While this security school of thought framed security questions in terms of defense from external forces, there are however internal conditions regarding the daily experiences of the ordinary people.
This focus includes many areas such as; providing clean and portable water, infrastructural upgrades, sustaining livelihoods, promotion of green energy, enhancing disaster preparedness mechanisms and increasing health coverage.
It is important to note that TICAD has identified these areas as key for interactions between the two Japan and Zimbabwe.
While the Japanese have zealously funded the human security priorities through arms of the UN, there have been the same resolve largely from Western countries and in recent years, from the Chinese.
What this means is that people who are ultimately the intended beneficiaries of domestic and foreign policy are now critically identified, as the targets of community based programming ostensibly seeking to achieve human security goals.
Of competing blocs, forums and regional integration
The changing nature of diplomacy has brought several new blocs in international relations.
Apart from the dominant state actors and international organisations largely founded from geographical proximity or relatedness especially in terms of trade and economic interests, there are however newer formations which have emerged and challenged old hegemonies of international affairs.
This is the case, especially considering events such as the Forum on African Cooperation (FOCAC), Indonesia-Africa Summit, the India–Africa Forum Summit (IAFS) and other such vehicles to which TICAD is competing. Beyond Asia, there are numerous other forum such as Brazil-Africa Summit, EU-Africa Summit,
It is important to note that these rising forums challenge the colonially built formations of Francophone, Commonwealth and Lusophone among other. With TICAD, the general opinion has been that it has been a response to the hugely successful FOCAC. Even as African leaders sat in Yokohama, much narrative within the media was framed around Beijing, as if it was party to the forum dynamics.
The key difference however is that relations with Beijing are built on an ideologically based background in the fight against colonialism, which is different from that of the Japanese.
However the rise of Beijing depicts transformations of the same political relationships which are now built on business leanings, just as is the case with TICAD, despite the resonation for “win-win” cooperation, which is a common euphemism for any interaction in international affairs.
Regardless of these changing dynamics, the undercurrents between Tokyo and Beijing depict competing interests in courting Africa and in reasserting dominance within the regional establishment of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
Despite the presence of the many options which Africa and individual member states now have, there is also need to counterbalance the external interactions with the regional objectives of increased integration in fulfilment of Agenda 2063.
With TICAD, Japan’s role as the world’s third largest economy renowned as a technological civilisation producing automobiles and electronic devices is reasserted.
Equally China’s formidable rise internationally, in infrastructure development, manufacturing, science and technology development further gives Africa a key platform to make interactions advancing modernisation in individual African countries.
Beijing in particular has carved out its name across the continent, through infrastructural projects such as roads, bridges and hospitals.
Africa’s expectation of the Eastern capabilities is thus summarised in Rwandese President’s remarks during his meeting with PM Abe!
“We appreciate Japan’s support in essential fields such as technical training, education, infrastructure, innovation, and entrepreneurship,” he was quoted by the Japanese Foreign Affairs Ministry.
With African member states having signed the African Continental Free Trade Area, there is another opportunity for advancing regional integration alongside other forums such as TICAD or FOCAC.
With TICAD and many other such engagements, it is quite evident that there are shaping dynamics going beyond the focus on trade and investment issues. This depicts the defining forces which will continuously shape the relations for the future.