The Japan-China power rivalry is working in favour of Kenya

Sunday May 18 2014

President Uhuru Kenyatta receives Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang when he arrived at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport on May 9, 2014 for a State visit. On his left is Deputy President William Ruto. PHOTO | PSCU

President Uhuru Kenyatta receives Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang when he arrived at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport on May 9, 2014 for a State visit. On his left is Deputy President William Ruto. PHOTO | PSCU 

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Hard on the heels of the recent visit by the Chinese Prime Minister, Li Keqiang, on Friday, Japan’s mission in Nairobi convened a high profile policy workshop on Japan-Kenya relations.

Manifestly, China’s charm offensive in Africa and raging supremacy contest with Japan in Asia are galvanising Tokyo to expand its economic and diplomatic clout in Kenya. The power rivalry by Asia’s economic giants is increasing the flow of resources and investments in Kenya, breaking the threat of Kenya’s global isolation in the post-2013 presidential contest.

As an economic powerhouse with no military of its own, Japan is still struggling to define its position in the new multi-polar world order. But Japan is looking to its new Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, elected in December 2012, to soar is global fortunes.

Premier Abe is weaving Japan’s foreign policy around two concepts, now influencing Japan-Kenya relations.

One is his “active pacifism” doctrine; the other is his “Abenomics” – a portmanteau for Abe’s economic policies.


Unmistakably conceived as a rival ideology to China’s soft power, the active pacifism doctrine seeks to enhance Japan’s military power and diplomatic clout globally to check the growing influence of China, particularly in the East Asian rim. It has four core elements.

First, Japan is re-interpreting its post-War “Peace Constitution” (Article 9) to lift the restrictions on its war-making capacity and to give its Self-Defence Forces (SDF) the requisite legal force to wage war.

Japan’s hard power re-orientation has been emboldened by President Barack Obama’s recent visit where America reassured Tokyo on the US-Japan Security Treaty, signed after the Second World War.

Second, Japan is seeking to strengthen its military capabilities, including the establishment or expansion of its military industry and technology, and coordination and integration with allies to counter a perceived Chinese threat.

Third, Japan is elevating military issues within its foreign policy, giving priority to security/military issues over diplomacy. Finally, Tokyo is espousing the moral superiority of universal values such as freedom, human rights, democracy and the rule of law, thus positioning Japan as a modern “Western” nation.

On that basis, Yachi Shotaro, the national security adviser to the Cabinet (secretary-general of the national security secretariat), insists that “there seems to be absolutely no chance for China to facilitate a power shift from the United States in the global arena”. This is because “China does not seem to embrace universal principles and ideals that justify its role as world leader.”

As for now, the brewing power rivalry between the two Asian giants – spawned by the rise of China and tensions with Japan particularly in the wake of territorial dispute over the Pacific Island of Senkakou (Japan)/Diaoyu (China) – has not yet started playing out in Africa, although its ripples are beginning to be felt.


The historic mission of the Abe administration is to reverse Japan’s economic plunge, which is likely to undermine its influence in Africa vis-à-vis China. At the moment, the statistics do not portend a bright future, especially in the multi-polar world where diplomacy is heavily leaning on economic power.

The Economist’s survey, The World in 2050, revealed that Japan’s GDP growth per year for 2011 through 2050 is expected to be only 0.9 per cent on average. This is way below the projected 3.7 per cent world GDP average growth for the same period. In this configuration, only Japan will continue to follow a long-term downtrend in its economy.

Despite this grim picture, Japan is optimistic, especially in regard to its relations with Africa. Despite the entry of China, Africa remains an important frontier for Japan’s trade and investment.

In strengthening its relations with Africa, Japan, like China, is largely focusing on economic cooperation. Here, its image is not steeped in the colonial past, unlike in East Asia where Japan was a colonial power alongside Europe. Japan’s diplomats in Nairobi are hopeful that “Japan-Africa relations are an important juncture to develop to the next stage”.

Like China, Japanese leaders have embarked on a whirlwind of diplomatic tours of Africa to win the hearts and minds of the world’s new frontier of natural resources and investments.

During the Fifth Tokyo International Conference on Africa (TCAD- V) in June last year, Premier Abe promised to “set his foot on the African soil”. He made good his promise in January when he visited Cote d’Ivoire, Mozambique and Ethiopia, and addressed the African Union in Addis Ababa where, like the Chinese leaders, Abe stressed mutual respect with Japan and Africa “thinking together and working together”.

But concerns were raised that, like Obama who visited Africa in June 2013, Abe also skipped Nairobi at a time when Kenya was facing the threat of isolation over the choices its voters made in 2013.

But Tokyo’s diplomats in Nairobi were quick to reassure Kenya that it is still a pivotal nation in Japan’s African policy. “I wish to welcome Prime Minister Abe in Kenya in the not too distant future,” wrote Ambassador Tatsuchi Terada in January.

The rivalry between China and Japan is effectively breaking the threat of what was widely seen as a possible diplomatic isolation of post-2013 election Kenya, and moving economic cooperation to a whole new level.

Nairobi, which holds the largest Japanese community in Africa and is the regional headquarters for all the major Japanese agencies and Japan’s largest trading house, is the destination of a new inflow of development support and Japanese firms seeking to invest in energy, oil exploration, infrastructure and agribusiness.

During TCAD-V, the Abe administration touted Kenya as a model for Japan’s cooperation with Africa, citing the Toyota Kenya Academy as a model of cooperation in human resource development. Japan is casting its net wider into infrastructure projects, including the Mombasa port, Olkaria geothermal plant, Sodu/Miriu hydro-power plant and Nairobi Ring Road project, among others.

But, unlike China, Japan is also focusing on governance issues. It has also not openly supported the African position relating to Kenya’s trials at the ICC. Japan, like China and the West, considers Kenya as a gateway and an important hub for eastern Africa.

Prof Kagwanja is the Chief Executive of the Africa Policy Institute. [email protected]