China and Japan at Odds over Africa
China stands alarmed at Japan's continent-wide diplomacy in reinvigorating its ties with Africa. China accords great strategic significance to Africa as a source of precious raw materials and a booming market for finished products. China's trade with Africa was set to surpass $200 billion in 2012, a landmark achievement for its continuously rising share in global trade and commerce.
A public scuffle broke out this week between the Chinese ambassador to the African Union (AU), Xie Xiaoyan, and the Prime Minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe, with Xie characterizing Abe as "the biggest troublemaker in Asia" a day after Mr. Abe addressed the AU and pledged loans worth $2 billion over five years as private sector assistance to Africa. Mr. Abe's diplomatic push has upset the Chinese government as he focuses on cornering precious energy resources in Mozambique along with offering billions of dollars in aid, trade, and loans with a view to forging close relations across the continent. Ambassador Xie's comments have come at a time when escalating Sino-Japanese tensions over flight zones, maritime rules for fishing vessels, the disputed Senkaku Islands, and P.M. Abe's visit to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine have marred already not-so-good relations between the two countries.
Since the African continent has vast potential for investments and big markets, both these economic giants want to surpass each other and maintain their sole preponderance in the region.
The military drill termed as "Island Defense" conducted by elite Japanese paratroopers this past Monday simulating the recapture of a remote island from an enemy country also appears to worry the Chinese. Following the drill, Japanese Defence Minister Itsunori Onodera directly referred to the possible recapture of the disputed territory and waters around the Senkaku Islands. Further, the drill may also be an exercise to display the naval preparedness of Japan for the purpose of asserting dominance in the Asia-Pacific and the Far East, something China would never accept as it wishes to remain the sole hegemon in the region as the geopolitical emphasis shifts east away from the traditional center of Europe.
Ambassador Xie responded with an emotional press conference at the AU on Wednesday, displaying pictures of Japanese brutality, particularly the "Rape of Nanking" during the Second Sino-Japan war of 1937 and referring to the Yaskuni Shrine, recently visited by Mr. Abe, as "a spiritual tool and symbol of Japanese militarism and aggression... This is a brazen affront on people of all countries that once suffered from Japanese militarist aggression." Further, "The Japanese Prime Minister is trying to put on two faces -- one to be a peace-loving leader who talks about cooperation, economics and trying to be friends with Africa."
The Japanese government, prior to Mr. Abe's visit, had made several allusions to China's apparent strategy of aligning with African leaders rather than with the people. "We will centre the axis of Japan's diplomacy towards Africa on two groups. Young people, who will without a doubt shoulder the responsibility for the future Africa, and women, who will give life to Africa's future generations," Mr. Abe said in his speech on Tuesday. In comments to the BBC, Mr. Abe's spokesperson pointedly added, "Countries like Japan... cannot provide African leaders with beautiful houses or beautiful ministerial buildings."
China hit back on the same day by saying that "China and Africa started cooperation, supported each other for many decades, when China was poor, when Africa was not getting the kind of attention it is getting today, it was neglected." said Mr. Xie. "We don't engage in such competition as subscribed by some countries."
But the fact is, both are strong contenders for increasing their sphere of influence in the African continent. While competition for securing one's interests is far from wrong, the use of impolite language by China against Prime Minister Abe can never be justified in the interest of peace and security of not only Africa or Asia but also of the world as a whole.