Africa is in the minds of influential nations for quite long. The continent that Joseph Conrad once termed as the 'heart of darkness' is no longer left in shadow ever since the process of decolonization had seen one after another of continent's European colonies emerging as independent states. However, that new reality had also given impetus to a new form of rivalry as superpowers started fighting proxy wars throughout the continent; resulting in the spread of poverty and famine, as well as rise of local thugs as strongmen leaders willing to provide their services whoever of the big players would give them legitimacy. That episode has by now become a part of African history as the end of Cold War rivalry paved the way for the return of a peaceful setting across the continent. Africa since then is stepping ahead towards the road to economic development, although in a slower pace than other formerly neglected parts of the world, namely Asia and Latin America.

But the continent, with its abandoned natural and mineral resources, is catching the eyes of new influence paddlers who see the scope for ripping the benefits of this new reality by using a completely different set of rules of the game. Economic cooperation and direct foreign investment are two of the strong components of the new rules, and with that in hand; new players are already exploring the future possibilities of the continent that they say will create a win-win situation for both sides. And two major players in that new game are China and Japan, both trying to expand their influence throughout the continent by using their new economic might that are also fueling their respective desire to be among the key players of the game known as global politics.

This new trend of looking at Africa was first marked in early 1990s when Japan started focusing on new areas for the procurement of vital resources needed for the proper functioning of country's manufacturing machine. The first Gulf War had already signaled the gravity of a volatile powder keg on which much of the world had been depending for the supply of cheap energy resources. The call of Africa thus sounded ever more lucrative and difficult to ignore any longer. It was the time when Japan launched country's first initiative for the continent under the banner of "Tokyo International Conference on African Development". The summit-level conference more commonly known as TICAD was held for the first time in Tokyo in 1993 and since then five more gatherings had also been arranged in Japan as well as in Africa. The seventh of this periodic summit of African leaders is due to open this week (on July 28) at the port city of Yokohama. The early 1990 initiative was seen by many in Japan as a timely one that might open a new chapter of country's economic cooperation with continent Africa and thus help Japan securing a foothold in that resource-rich but overlooked continent.

However, to the chagrin of Japanese policy makers, the timing of country's focus on Africa coincided with that of China. By the turn of the century China had emerged as a new economic power capable of upsetting many existing norms and paving the way for Beijing to be an important stakeholder in global politics. Unlike Japan, China also had an added advantage of being a country maintaining a closer understanding with many African nations during the long Cold War era. It was also more or less at the same time that China initiated Africa Summit, a regular gathering of African leaders for exchanging opinions on African development and the possible role Beijing would like to play in the process. As the rapid economic progress was bringing enormous dividend, China also started offering easy loans and technical assistance for infrastructure and other projects throughout the continent. Compared to that, Japan's TICAD initiative looked more like a forum of secondary importance.

Much has been changed since those early days of rivalry between Asia's two economic giants for winning over Africa's heart of darkness. Chinese economy is no longer able to keep the same growth pace; whereas Japanese economy, not in a good shape for more than two decades, is also showing signs of accumulating fatigue, resulting in the shrinkage of country's Official Development Assistance (ODA) budget. Moreover, the easy money from China also had taken some African countries to the path that some economists are eager to term as the debt trap. With such realizations, focus is now gradually being shifted from economic assistance to investment and main focus of TICAD 7 in the Japanese city of Yokohama is going to be more business oriented. And to avoid direct competition with the growing Chinese presence in Africa, Japan has already hinted about country's policy shift focusing more on quality economic assistance in Africa, rather than quantitative support. The Japanese government is also urging country's private sector business to take a leading role in the conference and for the first time business leaders are invited to speak during the plenary TICAD meeting.

It has been a common perception of Japanese policy makers that country's private sector business had been relatively slow in reacting to African potential. Africa maintained a high level of real economic growth throughout the first two decades of 21st century and according to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), Africa's average economic growth from 2000 through 2017 was 4.3 percent. Meanwhile, continent's population is predicted to continue growing and expected to reach 4.28 billion by the end of the current century. As a result, one in every four humans in the world will be in Africa at the end of the century, which will make the continent a highly significant market.

Japanese business is gradually awakening to this African reality and the government has shown eagerness to help Japanese business to expand in Africa. As a result, unlike previous forums, TICAD 7 is more likely to become a business oriented gathering at a time when Japan's official development assistance continues to decline considerably. One particular idea concerning ODA that Japanese official circle is eagerly promoting these days is for ODA to play a role of catalyst that introduces private sector funding. TICAD 7 will be the first step towards achieving that goal and how far Japan will be successful in penetrating deep into the heart of Africa in this competitive era remains to be seen. The joint declaration at the end of the summit might give some hints.

(Tokyo, July 27, 2019)

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