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What lies behind Asia's advance into Africa

TOKYO While the U.S. and Europe still dominate, Asia has emerged as an important force in the African development landscape, strengthening relations and providing much needed assistance.

Much like Western governments before them, the likes of Japan, China, India and South Korea have motives that go well beyond supporting domestic companies moving into the continent, and competition for greater political influence is not far from the surface.

China has held the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation meetings every third year since 2000. At the sixth meeting in Johannesburg last December, President Xi Jinping announced that China would provide as much as $60 billion in assistance during the period through 2018, including low-interest loans and aid to SMEs.

For China, where growth is undergoing a clear slowdown, cooperation with Africa is important in a number of different ways. Firstly, the country is obviously keen to promote Chinese companies' overseas expansion. Secondly, with domestic production having reached excessive overcapacity, Beijing desperately needs to secure export markets for iron, cement and other heavy industries.

The third, and perhaps most important reason, is the desire to secure the country's role within an increasingly fractious international community. Large-scale economic assistance is one way of making more friends on the continent. When the international tribunal in The Hague issued a ruling in favor of the Philippines over the South China Sea, China could draw on support fostered through years of investment in Africa.

Similarly, India has held a regular triennial conference since 2008. At the third India-Africa Forum Summit in New Delhi in October 2015, attended by representatives from 54 countries and organizations, the Indian government announced that it would provide $10 billion in credit and $600 million in grant aid.

In January 2016, the 4th India Africa Hydrocarbons Conference was also held in New Delhi. The Indian government can look back on the conference with a certain amount of satisfaction, having signed memorandums of understanding with several participating countries on oil field development and receiving a number of offers for concessions.

Minister for Petroleum and Natural Gas Dharmendra Pradhan, the conference chair, indicated wide-ranging cooperation not limited to the import of natural resources. "Our companies expressed interest to partner African countries in developing city gas distribution projects, gas-based power and fertilizer plants as well as in laying cross-country gas pipelines," he said.

India is one of several emerging economic powerhouses to have called for admission to the United Nations Security Council. Considerable obstacles to any such development remain, but building a support network of countries could prove invaluable if it is to achieve that aim.

"With the firm relationship with Africa, India is trying to ensure its natural resources, UNSC reform and also security in the Indian Ocean," an Indian political expert pointed out. Trade between India and Africa exceeded $70 billion in fiscal 2014 -- seven times the 2004 level, yet significantly below the $200 billion China has achieved.

CHANGE OF TACK Having consistently lost out to Beijing in bidding for oil concessions in the mid-2000s, India has turned its attention to less tangible fields, including medical care, information technology and education. Recently, plans were unveiled to provide much needed support to the agricultural sector, with the provision of equipment, technology, infrastructure development and land management.

Japan's history of development in Africa goes back a little further. The first Tokyo International Conference on African Development was held in 1993. The sixth conference, to be held in Nairobi at the end of this month, will be the first in Africa. Hopes are high for a successful meeting, with the themes expanding from long-standing tasks in the health care and poverty-reduction fields to the need for economic structural reform, declines in natural-resource prices and the rise of extremism.

For Tokyo, it is naturally important to support Japanese companies in Africa and secure important resources of crude oil, natural gas, rare metals and rare earths.

Japan is another country advocating UNSC reform -- even if it stands no better chance of admission than India -- and also seeks to build support from within Africa.

Farming assistance has long been a staple of Japanese development. In Zambia, the average amount of rice harvested per hectare is 0.6 of a ton, one-eleventh of the yield in Japan. Tokutaro Iino, an official from the Japan International Cooperation Agency dispatched to Lusaka's Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock, said the country's manufacturing also suffers from chronically high costs, citing low farming efficiency as the culprit. JICA aims to help Africa double its rice production from 14 million tons in 2008 to 28 million tons in 2018.

Despite currently suffering from low resource prices, Africa's enormous potential makes it of vital importance to the world's major powers.

With 10% of the world's petroleum resources, a population of 1.14 billion, and economy expected to grow to a level comparable to China's current economy within 40 years, Asian countries are laying the foundations for productive and financially beneficial long-term relationships.

Nikkei staff writer Wataru Kodaka contributed to this story.

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