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China and Japan's dispute over Africa turns ugly

China and Japan's dispute over Africa turns ugly Ian Fraser

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Watching CCTV-News in Hong Kong last week, I was struck by the vitriol that Chinese official sources are heaping on Japan. Speaking on the Chinese state broadcaster's English language Dialogue show on 14 January, Beijing-based but US-born pundit Einar Tangen denounced the Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe as a “dangerous psychopath”. Tangen also accused Abe of practicing “voodoo economics” (because he is combining expansionary economic policies with attempts to weaken the yen) and warned viewers of “a growing concern that he [Abe] is sliding into fascism.”

The words reflect growing tensions between the two East Asian economic powerhouses, and made me think there might even be a risk of war between them. Speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos, the New York-based economist Nouriel Roubini warned of just such a scenario.

Maybe, hopefully, all this anti-Japanese rhetoric and propaganda is some form of diversion? Maybe China's president Xi Jinping and premier Li Keqiang are ratcheting it up in order to divert public attention away from troubles closer to home? There are certainly issues away from which they may want China's 1.35 billion people to avert their gaze, including severe smog in Beijing (which has prompted the authorities to televise sunrises on giant television screens); a weakening Chinese economy; revelations about serious corruption among the political elite; the trial of the prominent human rights lawyer and anti-corruption campaigner Xu Zhiyuong; and the mounting workers’ unrest across the People’s Republic.

According to Quartz, the latter is fairly serious. It has seen 72 strikes across China in recent weeks, with migrant workers who have had to go without pay for months holding out/downing tools until they're paid back-wages ahead of returning to their families for the Chinese New Year on 31 January.

The ostensible backdrop to China's verbal assault on Japan is the ongoing dispute between the two countries over ownership of an obscure group of islands in the East China Sea, which I first wrote about in September 2012. The dispute intensified following Abe’s controversial visit to the Yasukuni Shrine, which honors Japanese war criminals, including people linked to the 1937 Nanking massacre in which some 300,000 Chinese died. Abe's visit to the shrine triggered a diplomatic incident, with China’s ambassador to London likening Abe to the villain of the Harry Potter books, Lord Voldemort.

The Japanese ambassador to the UK fought back with a Daily Telegraph op-ed (published on 6 January), in which he also made reference to the "Dark Lord" of the Harry Potter novels. Keiichi Hayashi wrote:

“East Asia is now at a crossroads. There are two paths open to China. One is to seek dialogue, and abide by the rule of law. The other is to play the role of Voldemort in the region by letting loose the evil of an arms race and escalation of tensions, although Japan will not escalate the situation from its side.”

The subplot to the verbal criticisms is a new scramble for Africa. Now that European colonialists have all but pulled out of the African continent, China and Japan are vying hard for influence there – with aid programs and large-scale investments in, among other things, the extractive industries, farmland and infrastructure projects.

China jumped in first. It has been on a "charm offensive" in the African continent for several decades. The world's most populous country has, according to AidData, committed $75bn to aid and development projects in Africa in the past decade in a bid to secure political and economic influence.

Earlier this month, Japan fought back. Having organized a summit of African leaders in Tokyo last summer, Abe paid a visit to three sub-Saharan countries (Côte d’Ivoire, Mozambique and Ethiopia) in early January. Beijing resents this incursion into what it sees as its territory and accused the hated Abe of courting African countries just so Japan can get a place on the United Nations' Security Council.

Japan hit back, verbally accusing China of buying off African leaders with lavish gifts, arguing that it had more noble and altruistic goals -- including “aiding the human capital of Africa”. A Financial Times Op-Ed was more positive about China’s approach, saying it had already "greatly improved Africa’s infrastructure". The FT comment piece also explained why Japan is so eager to foster African ties:

"Japan needs to diversify its sources of energy, particularly after the Fukushima disaster left most of its nuclear power stations idle. Japan also needs a fresh source of rare earths. Africa too could provide a market for Japanese goods – both industrial and consumer [...] Africa can even be “useful” in Mr Abe’s quest to prove that Japan is a constructive member of the international community, not the military threat China implies."

Tensions  between the two countries flared up again at the World Economic Forum in Davos, with Abe defending his visit to the shrine, calling for military restraint, and saying there was a need for mechanism for crisis management. At the same plutocratic get-together, Chinese academic Wu Xinbo branded Abe a "troublemaker" and likened him to North Korea's Kim Jong-un. According to Reuters, Wu said:

"Political relations between our two countries will remain very cool, even frozen, for the remaining years of Abe in Japan."

I sincerely hope we're not about to experience another Sino-Japanese arms race followed by a hot war. It would be infinitely preferable if the two nations could bury the hatchet over the atrocities of the 1930s and 1940s (it might only take a Japanese apology) and come to some sort of a modus operandi over Africa.

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Tags: Africa , African investments , aid , CCTV-News , China , Chinese economy , Chinese investment , corruption , Côte d’Ivoire , Davos , Einar Tangen , Ethiopia , Financial Times , Fukushima , government corruption , infrastructure investments , international differences , Japan , Japanese exporters , Japanese investments , Li Keqian , Mozambique , Nouriel Roubini , Shinzo Abe , Sub-Saharan Africa , World Economic Forum , Wu Xinbo , Xi Jinping
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