Asian Contestation in Africa’s Infrastructure Development

The 7th Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD) late last month witnessed 42 leaders and other government representatives from 53 African nations come together at Yokohama, Japan to participate in the conference ‘Advancing Africa’s Development through People, Technology and Innovation’. TICAD is a post-Cold War Japanese initiative and the summit level conference focuses on ‘grant aids and technical assistance’ under the Japan-Africa cooperation mechanism started in 1993.

Several countries are courting African states and offering attractive connectivity infrastructure options that underpin their political-economic-strategic-development interests in the continent. Many of these appear in concentrated form while others are tailored to the needs of host nations.

The Chinese investments in Africa for infrastructure are through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Beijing pledged $60 billion in Africa under the 2018 Summit declaration of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC). Likewise the 2019-2021 Action Plan identifies Africa as an important partner in the BRI. However some Chinese projects have attracted concerns and are labeled as ‘debt traps’. Beijing quickly recognized the anti-China sentiments in Africa and agreed to write-off nearly $50 billion in debts. It also offered to renegotiate contracts of Chinese supported projects and even agreed to defer payment on others. It is useful to mention that many African states have outstanding debts to Western countries too but have welcomed the Chinese policy of accommodating defaults and do not wish to be deprived of the flexible fiscal opportunity provided by China.

As far as ports are concerned, Port of Djibouti is at the centre of strategic competition between US and China who have military/naval presence along with that of France and Japan. Also, the Djibouti government was in a legal battle with DP World, a UAE based port infrastructure developer, whose contract for the operation of Doraleh Container Terminal (DCT) was unilaterally terminated ostensibly under Chinese pressure in favour of China Merchants Port Holdings (CM Port). In April 2019, a London court awarded DP World US$ 533 million in compensation. Similarly, China agreed to US$ 10 billion fund for Bagamayo port project in Tanzania; however in 2019, President John Magufuli accused China of “exploitative and awkward” terms for the project including “a guarantee of 33 years and a lease of 99 years”.

Japan has been the top investor in Kenya and under the TICAD it is involved in the expansion of the Mombasa Port, the 1,545 kilometer Northern Corridor from Mombasa to Burundi, and the 6,259 kilometer long Fourth Trans-African Highway connecting Mombasa port in the east to and Lagos, Nigeria in the west. According to Japan’s ministry of foreign affairs, the country invested US$ 20 billion in the continent from 2016-2018. During the 7th TICAD Prime Minister Abe assured the visiting leaders that over the next three years Japan's private sector would invest US$20 billion in Africa.

Unlike these Asian giants, India is a newcomer in overseas infrastructure development. Its recent projects in Iran (Chabahar port) and plans in Indonesia (Sabang port) are good examples of capacities to build maritime infrastructure. At home, the Indian government has an integrated maritime development programme called Sagarmala to turn the coastal areas into economic centers for regional and global maritime connectivity for trade to achieve the broad objective of promoting port-led development in India.

India is partnering Japan for the Asia Africa Growth Corridor (AAGC) which could be an attractive option for coastal states of Africa. Although AAGC has not taken traction yet ‘African perception of Indian investment has been largely positive’. The initiative is underpinned by promising forays by India and Japan in expansion of Chabahar port in Iran, Trincomalee port in Sri Lanka and the Dawei port along the Thai¬-Myanmar border. Related to that are the deliberations on ‘India-Japan Cooperation for Development of Africa’ held in India wherein finance ministers and/or central bank governors of 54 African countries and representatives of 27 other countries and organizations associated with the AfDB deliberated India-Japan initiatives aimed at connecting the Asia-Pacific region with Africa.

From geopolitical perspective the AAGC is seen by some as an alternative to China’s BRI. However, this contestation must be tampered with the new Chinese thinking of collaborative projects with Asian countries. It has invited Japan to join and develop project in third country and both countries are planning to sign memorandums of understanding on 20 to 30 projects and a high-speed rail project in Thailand. It is fair to assume that China and Japan will compete in Africa over investments but it is hazardous to predict who will be the winner. It is also quite plausible that both sides may co-opt and support Africa which would put pressure on the US, UK and EU approaches to support Africa.

Dr Vijay Sakhuja is associated with Kalinga International Foundation, New Delhi.

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