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International relations

Japan sends top diplomat on Africa trip to offset China tilt

Motegi seeks support for 'free and open Indo-Pacific' in Belt and Road hot spot

Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi speaks at a meeting in Tokyo in October.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- With Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi's tour of four African countries starting Tuesday, Tokyo hopes to build stronger economic ties and affirm support for the idea of a "free and open Indo-Pacific" in a region where China has already established a firm foothold.

Motegi will stop in Tunisia, Mozambique, South Africa and Mauritius on his first visit to the continent since becoming foreign minister in September 2019.

Motegi and the government face the task of showing Japan to be a more attractive business partner than China, which has been expanding its presence on the continent through active investment in infrastructure, particularly through the Belt and Road initiative. Tokyo looks to use the trip to draw a contrast with Beijing, with an emphasis on building a transparent business environment.

While Western countries portray China as burdening poor countries with debt for big Belt and Road projects, Beijing stresses its contributions to Africa's development.

"China has built for Africa over 6,000 km of railways and the same mileage of roads, nearly 20 ports and over 80 large-scale power plants, and more than 130 medical facilities, 45 stadiums and 170 or so schools," Foreign Minister Wang Yi said in a November speech for the 20th anniversary of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, adding that this has "made a big difference in Africa's economic and social development."

China has financed and built infrastructure projects in Africa, including the Standard Gauge Railway line in Kenya.   © Reuters

And although reports of discrimination against Africans in China during the nation's coronavirus response have stoked distrust of Beijing, Chinese President Xi Jinping has promised to prioritize African countries in distribution of its COVID-19 vaccines.

Motegi's stop in Tunisia -- which will host the next Tokyo International Conference on African Development, or TICAD, in 2022, represents an opportunity to affirm that Tunis and Tokyo are on the same geopolitical page.

The Yokohama Declaration issued after last year's TICAD stated that members "take good note of the initiative of a free and open Indo-Pacific announced by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe" at the 2016 gathering in Nairobi, marking the first mention of the concept in a TICAD statement.

Motegi's visit is meant to signal that Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga is following in Abe's footsteps.

"Mozambique, South Africa and Mauritius are located at the easternmost point of a free and open Indo-Pacific," he told reporters Friday.

Building stronger business relationships with South Africa and Mozambique is also on the agenda. South Africa is the sole African member of the Group of 20, and more Japanese companies do business there than anywhere else on the continent. Mozambique is growing more prominent as a producer of liquefied natural gas, a key energy source for resource-poor Japan.

The visit to Mauritius follows a massive oil spill from a Japanese-owned bulk carrier this summer. Motegi plans to discuss the response to the incident and longer-term support measures, such as supplying equipment for small fishing businesses.

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