Last week, Japan pledged more than $1.9 billion to Africa over the next five years. The announcement was made on the first day of a timely Japan-Africa summit in Yokohama. Japan's Prime Minister, Yasuo Fukuda, promised a further $4 billion in soft loans over the same period to help improve infrastructure on the continent, and a $2.5 billion fund through the Japan Bank for International Cooperation, designed to expand his country's investment in Africa. This comes hot on the heels of increased pressure, both internally and externally, for Japan to expand relations with Africa, given the recent media frenzy surrounding China's ascendancy in Africa in recent years. With Japan lagging far behind China in its trade and investment efforts in Africa, this announcement is seen as a concerted effort to answer critics with regard to the country's waning influence in, and commitment to the continent's development since the early 1980s.

Japanese leaders know all too well that they will have their work cut out for them if Japan is to catch up with India, let alone China, in terms of the total volume of trade and investment in Africa. India, following closely in the footsteps of China, announced a $500 million grant for development, a further $5 billion in credit to Africa, as well as a formal agreement, comprising 131 projects, reportedly worth over $10 billion. These announcements, made at last month's first India-Africa Forum Summit, reflect New Delhi's eagerness, not only to deepen its engagement and raise its profile with the resource-endowed continent but, more importantly, to catch up with to China, as the latter is tightening its foothold on the continent.

China's involvement in Africa has elicited strong concern from its Asian neighbors, but also criticism, not only from the West, but from Africa as well. Indeed, many in the West, and increasingly in Africa, are questioning the motives behind China's extraordinary level of interest in the world's poorest region.

In recent months, Chinese investments have sparked controversy and public protests over alleged poor working conditions and low pay by Chinese firms in both Zambia and Namibia. Moreover, Chinese companies have been accused of selling very cheap, inferior consumer goods, which have left local entrepreneurs at a major disadvantage. This has sparked public outcries in a number of states, particularly those less endowed with mineral resources. In Lesotho, local street vendors attacked Chinese-owned businesses in November 2007. They threw rocks and chanted anti-Chinese slogans, accusing Chinese investors of colluding with government to force them out of the city center of the country's capital, Maseru.

Critics are pointing out the potential long-term negative impact of China's growing economic interest in Africa. They argue that Beijing's demand for African oil exports and other raw materials inevitably helped to perpetuate Africa's reliance on oil exports. In so doing, it further prevented the growth of more labor-intensive industries, such as agro-business and manufacturing.

It comes as no surprise then that, in recent months, Chinese leaders have come to defend their policies in Africa and tried to counter arguments that their engagement in Africa had resulted in more harm than good. In a bid to improve its standing as a responsible economic partner in Africa, China has recently agreed to co-operate and work with Western institutions, such as the World Bank, to develop aid projects on the continent. In December 2007, Chinese diplomats met with Western donors in Kinshasa to try and co-ordinate their development schemes.

In Sudan, China played a vital role in convincing Khartoum to allow an UN-African Union hybrid peacekeeping force being deployed in Darfur. China was severely criticized in the past for not putting pressure on the government of President Omar al-Bashir to put an end to the conflict in Darfur - a region which claimed the lives of more than 300 000 Sudanese, with two million others displaced. Beijing even sent some 275 military engineers to be deployed in the region. In southern Africa, China ordered a ship, stranded on the coast, back in April 2008, following a refusal by South African dock workers to unload the military cargo of the ship, destined for Zimbabwe's autocratic regime of Robert Mugabe.

It would seem at first glance as though Beijing's behavior and its policies in Africa could indeed be evolving and maturing, given the increased scrutiny these have commanded in Western media, and the negative publicity that China would like to avoid in the weeks leading up to the 2008 Summer Olympic Games. Whether this is indeed the case or not, two points should be reiterated with regard to China's engagement with Africa.

In the first place, China's more active engagement with Africa is part of its continuing emergence as a truly global player and, as such, it is no different from what major powers do traditionally. Beijing has acted and behaved no differently from the way European powers did decades and centuries ago. Secondly, China's global and regional diplomacy pursues multiple objectives, just like that of all great powers, resulting in tension between values and interests at both national and global level. China can no more be expected to subjugate its commercial and strategic interests than Western powers have done in their African/global policies.

Also appeared in The Korea Times, The Times of Nigeria and Mail & Guardian (South Africa)

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