Japan’s new model of Africa engagement


The Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD), held triennially, represents more than a quarter century of engagement between Japan and the African continent. Tokyo co-hosts multilateral agencies such as the UN, World Bank, UN Development Program and African Union (AU) as a unique facet of the TICAD mechanism aimed at bridging African needs with the resources of G7 donor powers. The latest iteration, TICAD 7, was held in Yokohama from 28–30 August 2019.
TICAD 7 introduced several new paradigms for engagement — most notably the role of private enterprise and civil society as the frontline of the Japan–Africa partnership. The summit also placed special emphasis on Japan’s unique ‘brand’ as a development partner and its distinctiveness as a global technology leader. These themes present an alternative to the Chinese brand of development partnership in Africa plagued by criticisms of corruption, coercive debt and poor quality. At the same time, the TICAD 7 Declaration distinguished the multilateral paradigm as a ‘pace-setter’ for other partnerships, leaving the door open for Japan–China–Africa cooperation in South–South development initiatives.
TICAD 7 marks the third time that the summit-level conference has been held in the city of Yokohama, where year-round events and a celebration of African art and culture are held to deepen the ties of friendship between Yokohama and African states. TICAD was attended by 26 African heads of state and featured bilateral meetings with over 40 African nations, including Kenya, Egypt, Djibouti and South Africa — all strategic hubs for Japan’s diplomatic and security engagement in Africa.
In Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s closing remarks he emphasised TICAD’s role in imagining a ‘new future of Africa from various positions, such as the African states, Japan, the International Organizations, and the other partner states and the civil society’. Increasingly, TICAD is promoted as a ‘responsible forum’ that engages a variety of established and emerging development partners in Asia, Africa and the West.
The theme of ‘Advancing Africa’s Development through People, Technology and Innovation’ brings into focus two key areas of growth. First, an increased investment in soft power and human development, and second, active efforts by the government of Japan to distinguish a unique framework for TICAD that leverages Japan’s competitive advantages in technology and innovation.
TICAD 7 showcased several areas of change and hallmarks of a maturing development relationship between Japan and Africa. TICAD is moving squarely away from the donor–recipient model characteristic of other OECD–DAC donors to an ‘ownership and partnership model’ championed by Tokyo. Abe introduced a ‘New TICAD’, born at the 2016 Nairobi conference, by placing special emphasis on entrepreneurship, enterprise, investment and innovation.
In contrast to the 2013 and 2016 TICADs, Abe avoided any extensive official development assistance (ODA) pledges, instead promising that the Japanese government would advance Japanese private investment and entrepreneurs in Africa by an estimated US$20 billion in public–private partnership over three years. This marks a significant shift from previous trends where Tokyo confronted Beijing head-to-head with bold development investment promises. Rather than challenge the growing prominence of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, Japan emphasised areas of distinction from its Asian neighbour. TICAD has revectored toward business promotion and soft power linked to public–private investment.
Appealing to criticisms of decaying infrastructure projects or ‘one-off’ vanity projects built by China, TICAD 7 drew attention to Japan’s unique brand of high-quality, high-tech development in Africa. The long-term commitment to realising quality projects and investments distinguishes Japan’s ODA model. Abe highlighted efforts to export Japan’s soft power assets, including training programs on social ethics in primary education, business work ethics, universal health care and wellbeing, and knowledge transfer in areas of technology development and innovation.
Displaying a trajectory of growth from TICAD 2013 and 2016, TICAD 7 included soft power promotion in every pillar of engagement from health care and development security, to cultivating an environment for business and innovation. With less than a year to the start of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, this network of soft power ties cultivated through TICAD will allow Japan to legitimise its global brand of leadership characterised by culture, technology and sustainability.
Security engagement also gained a refreshed acronym, NAPSA (New Approach for Peace and Stability in Africa). After the withdrawal of Japan’s Self Defence Forces (SDF) from South Sudan in 2017, the NAPSA marks a reset of security cooperation with AU and African regional organisations supporting conflict prevention and mediation. This places Tokyo at the table in mediating Africa’s hotspots alongside Beijing, who demonstrated a similarly proactive development security stance. Beyond ongoing SDF logistical support to UN peacekeeping operations, NAPSA includes training of African police officers, public prosecutors and judges in addition to ongoing operations at the expanded SDF Base in Djibouti. Japan re-emphasised African states’ strategic role in ‘safeguarding the Indo-Pacific’.
The 2019 summit shifted away from substantial ODA commitments and toward development in partnership with African states and communities. Given Japan’s domestic demographic and budgetary challenges, the role of new stakeholders in the TICAD process, including private enterprise, civil society, academia and think tanks, is prioritised going forward. Focussing on fostering ‘human security’ and transferring technologies through private sector engagement marks Tokyo’s attempt to realise a sustainable framework for development partnership.

Brittany Morreale is a PhD candidate in the Department of Asian Studies, the University of Adelaide.
Purnendra Jain is a Professor in the Department of Asian Studies, the University of Adelaide.