Competition between China and Japan obscures benefits for Africa’s new roads

5 mins read

by Xue Kai / Global Times
Earlier this year, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe passed through Africa on a multi-country tour, offering an opportunity for Japan to propose its economic development package to Africa. Given the $200 billion a year trade between China and Africa in 2012, comparisons were natural but made even livelier by the competitive words of the Japanese delegation.
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The prime minister’s spokesman pitched Japan as offering a people-to-people approach with technical skills transfer as against Chinese engagement providing local leaders with “beautiful houses” built by Chinese aid.
Following a visit by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi to the continent in January, some argued that Japan had a self-serving interest in lobbying Africa for a UN Security Council permanent seat.
Amid a low point in Sino-Japanese relations, these two state tours acrimoniously coincided and obscure how complementary China and Japan are in uniting economic development in Africa.
In aim and execution, Chinese and Japanese operating plans are similar. A main feature of Japanese aid is providing concessionary loans to build infrastructure like bridges, a frequently chosen type of project.
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As emphasized by the Japanese delegation, there is also people-to-people assistance in training doctors and teachers. This is similar to Chinese aid and government-sponsored investment.
China also builds public infrastructure like bridges, stadiums, opera houses, government office buildings, and also beautiful presidential residences, as gifts or funded by low cost loans mainly from the Export-Import Bank of China or the China Development Bank.
Rounding this out are scholarships and training with 12,000 African students in China on government scholarships, a much greater number than provided by traditional donors.
The goals of Chinese and Japanese programs also run parallel in commercial and political motivations. China wants to win support for political causes just as much as Japan, and most importantly, there is a link in both strategies to building goodwill for mineral and energy investments.
With similar content and motives, one’s critical remark about the flawed quality of the other’s plan is like self-disparagement. But the more remarkable incongruity is how well both parties complement each other at the project level. This is owed to the focus of China and Japan in physical infrastructure which fits well into the development plans of African governments.
In the last decade, there has been a road building spree across the continent. Piece by piece, the tarring of new roads and rehabilitation of ones in disrepair in countries like Ethiopia, Kenya and Tanzania will finish a project envisioned 125 years ago.
The paving of two under construction road gaps, one in far north Kenya and the other in central Tanzania, will create a 10,200-kilometer-long road running from Cape Town to Cairo.
The main contractors for three of the four phases of construction for this road project are Chinese. The one phase of work not performed by a Chinese contractor is funded by the EU, a financing arrangement that prevents Chinese construction firms from participating in the tender.
The gap in Tanzania running from Dodoma, the centrally placed capital, to the southern city of Iringa, is funded by the African Development Bank and the Japan International Cooperation Agency. In an added layer of cooperation, the road contractors of this Japanese project are Chinese construction firms.
It is an interesting twist to see the last pieces of this long-awaited dream put into place by Chinese contractors, financed in part by China and, in unintended synergy, elsewhere in part by Japan, without any benefit of bilateral coordination. As uneasy as geopolitical rivalry is, the result is nothing like a Cold War proxy conflict. It has produced instead healthy competition and the result is a more robust marketplace.
Xue Kai, an attorney in Beijing specialized in cross border transactions who advises Chinese clients on projects in Africa and elsewhere