Sensationalism and rhetoric: Chinese-Japanese
“rivalry” in Africa
10 March 2014
Admittedly, in the short t...
The Centre for Chinese Studies (CCS) at Stellenbosch University is the leading African research
institution for innovative...
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Chinese Japanese “Rivalry” in Africa


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Chinese Japanese “Rivalry” in Africa

  1. 1. Sensationalism and rhetoric: Chinese-Japanese “rivalry” in Africa 10 March 2014 CCS COMMENTARY: Admittedly, in the short term, the competition for attention, resources, and allegiance from Africa could help corrupt elites throughout the continent entrench their power. On the other hand, it gives African governments and companies greater bargaining power when negotiating international deals (it also takes away some excuses of ”Western dominance” and thus increases the responsibility of local elites for development). Growing trade and investment promote economic growth – some of the fastest growing economies in the world are in Africa – and forces other countries with vested interests in Africa, the United States of America, for example, to re-evaluate their Africa strategies and develop policies that might actually benefit both sides. Above all else, competition between nations for resources and influence is normal and should not be filtered through the lens of sensationalist rhetoric as this could have damaging implications for real academic analysis and policy development. Sensationalism, a staple of China-Japan relations, now in Africa China and Japan have, over the past year-or-so been engaged in a steadily escalating stalemate over a series of uninhabitable rocks in the East-China Sea. The hostility this generates and the accompanying outrageous remarks made by politicians and other commentators has turned sensationalism into a staple of many reports on relations between the two, especially in their respective domestic media outlets. Indeed, there is an argument to be made that this sensationalism is actively blocking diplomacy. A growing trend, outlined by Jin Kai in an article for The Diplomat, is for diplomats from either country to try presenting the other side in an unflattering light within the international media or in other public settings. Certainly, the most ridiculous examples were the Harry Potter comparisons in the British media. Liu Xiaoming, Chinese Ambassador to Britain, wrote an op-ed which compared Japan to Voldemort, the villain from the popular Harry Potter series of books and films. This was promptly followed by an op-ed from Liu’s Japanese counterpart, Keiichi Hayashi, who said that, in fact, China is really “He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named”. Ultimately, regardless of how apt either party thought the comparison was at the time, it was an infantile comparison which made both sides look a little foolish. Inevitably, this sort of discussion has filtered into reports on Chinese and Japanese engagement with Africa. In China, Prime Minister Abe’s trip is part of a sinister plot to “contain China in Africa” and cosy up to African Image: Shinzo Abe, Japan’s Prime Minister, recently visited Ethiopia, Mozambique and Cote D’Ivoire as part of his Middle East-Africa tour (Mr Abe also visited Oman). His trip prompted a flurry of media reports and academic analyses outlining how tensions between Japan and China were spilling over into Africa and that the continent is now at the centre of a geo-political tug-of-war between the East-Asian powers. This is very lazy analysis. It is reflective of a Cold War mind-set which sees Africa, not as a collection of independent states with their own agendas, but as a proxy battleground for the world’s larger economies to act out their rivalries. For African nations, international competition for natural resources and geo-political influence is, by and large, a good thing.
  2. 2. The Centre for Chinese Studies (CCS) at Stellenbosch University is the leading African research institution for innovative and policy relevant analysis of the relations between China and Africa. For more information, please check the CCS website: or contact us under Robert Attwell Affiliate Centre for Chinese Studies Stellenbosch University states to win votes for Japan’s bid to become a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. A further example of the over-the-top rhetoric coming to Africa was Xie Xiaoyan’s, China’s ambassador to Ethiopia, identification of Prime Minister Abe as Asia’s biggest “troublemaker” and his dire warnings of resurgent Japanese militarism – something which, he should have recognised, is pretty low on the list of African concerns. Meanwhile, in Japan, Chinese engagement with Africa is reported as being neo-colonial in nature, a resource grab which benefits the African political elite at the expense of African people. Obviously, neither view is particularly nuanced. Sensationalism and vitriolic rhetoric do not make for good analysis. Similarly, when discussing their respective engagement with Africa, there is a danger of over-emphasising the fact that China and Japan are rivals in East-Asia. This is only one aspect of either country’s interests in the African continent. Trade, aid, development, investment, security, international business and academic and cultural exchanges are more important issues for all concerned parties than this Cold War-esque, balance-of-power game which many media and other commentators seem to think is playing out across the African continent. The view from Japan Prime Minister Abe visited Mozambique, Ethiopia and Cote D’Ivoire during his recent Africa tour. Abenomics – a plan to stimulate the Japanese economy after years of stagnation – was the platform on which Mr Abe was elected and consequently economic exchange is the primary focus of Japan’s Africa strategy. In all his meetings with officials from the three countries, he pledged increased official development assistance and encouraged the deepening of diplomatic and commercial ties. Additionally, he pledged to invest in African human capital by offering scholarships for African students to study and work in Japan. For Japan, Africa is no longer just a top destination for ODA but an attractive place to invest. For example, the presence of vast natural gas deposits in Mozambique is especially attractive to Japan. Ever since the meltdown at Fukushima, Japanese reliance on nuclear power has become a hot-button issue and the government is finding ways to diversify Japan’s energy supply. Additionally, Africa’s growing middle class makes the continent attractive to Japanese manufacturers looking for new markets. When looking at Chinese and Japanese engagement with Africa, we need to see past the rhetoric and focus, instead, on the full picture. Making use of opportunities requires a clear head – and Africa has more important things to focus on than media flurries.