TICAD was first held in Tokyo in 1993 and quickly become the major platform via which Japan engaged with Africa as a general region. Held once every five years until 2013, it has since convened every three years. The conference has ostensibly been a high-level policy dialogue but has in practice been a vehicle to dispense Japanese development aid, or at least Japanese-facilitated aid, to African states, as well as push Japanese investment in Africa.
It is noteworthy that TICAD is not a binary engagement between Japan and Africa but rather has an internationalist element in that it is co-sponsored by the United Nations (UN), the UN Development Programme (UNDP), the World Bank, and the African Union Commission (AUC).
The creation of and engagement in TICAD embodies Japan’s acknowledgement of the importance of Africa as both a political and an economic bloc. Since the early 1990s African states have increased collaboration on the international stage, driven by the creation of organisations such as the African Union (AU) and the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD).
Historically, Japan’s motivation behind TICAD has been to increase influence among African states which will improve trade relations between Japan and the resource-rich countries of Africa, relationships which are essential for Japan to maintain its manufacturing sector which remains core to the Japanese economy. In addition, Africa is one of the largest and most cohesive diplomatic blocs and is essential for Japan’s long-held desire for a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). Finally, TICAD was also meant to be the primary vehicle through which Japan intended to challenge China’s influence in Africa. A major formal step such as TICAD was essential as China’s entrenched influence was rooted in its historical connections with many African liberation movements from as early as the 1960s.
In addition to the traditional relationship-building between leaders and cabinet ministers, TICAD 7 also saw a slight shift in Japan’s approach to Africa. This included a tacit acknowledgment that Japan is unable to compete with China’s financial heft and soft-power influence. This is driven by the fact that China has vastly more resources to spend in Africa, as well as the fact that an estimated one million Chinese live across Africa, compared to roughly 8 000 Japanese. Similarly, there are over 3 700 Chinese corporations active on the continent compared to about 800 Japanese companies with an African presence. Accordingly, Japan changed its narrative, calling for quality infrastructure development, implying a veiled reference to the oft critiqued quality of Chinese projects.
Similarly, during the conference, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe pledged to facilitate over US$20 billion into African economies in the next three years ahead of TICAD 8. Abe’s comments about the increasing indebtedness of African states also underscored another controversial aspect of China-Africa engagement.
A key indicator of Japan’s shift in approach to its engagement with Africa was the initiating of a dialogue on the Japan-focused Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) initiative. FOIP is aimed at improving cooperation between Africa and Asia with Japan as the central party in this improved relationship. This suggests that Japan intends to incorporate Africa into a more global development and diplomatic push, as opposed to just a bilateral one.
TICAD 7 was generally hailed as a success, both in turnout and in improved relations and investment pledges. Most significantly, it marked the start of a shift in Japan’s approach to Africa. Japan has realised it cannot compete directly with countries such as China and the US, especially in terms of economic or militaristic heft. However, the country aims to utilise its internationalist approach and its reputation for quality and reliable development assistance, investment, and infrastructure developments to its advantage. It appears that Japan hopes that this more subtle approach will cement relations and foster reliable trade ties with African states and that such soft-power endeavours will ultimately ensure African states support Japan in its larger diplomatic ambitions.