“Sino-Japanese rivalry is fiercest in diplomacy and trade. Two prizes are on offer: access to natural resources and markets, and the continent’s 54 votes at the UN”.
Concerns about China’s involvement in Africa are overplayed. Accusations that it is buying up vast tracts of farmland, factories and mines, for instance, are blown out of proportion. But its growing influence has nettled India and Japan, who are both boosting their engagement in response. As with previous rounds of rivalry in Africa, such as the cold war, this relates to access to bases and ports to control the sea. China now has a growing military presence in Africa. Thousands of Chinese soldiers have donned the UN’s blue helmets in Mali and South Sudan. Chinese warships regularly visit African ports. China maintains a naval squadron that escorts Chinese-flagged vessels through the Gulf of Aden. Patrolling for pirates has given China an excuse to set up its first overseas base in Djibouti, next door to an existing American one. So India is deeply suspicious of China in the Indian Ocean. A wide network of 32 Indian radar stations and listening posts is being developed in the Seychelles, Madagascar and Mauritius to enable India to monitor shipping across the ocean. It is arming friendly countries such as Mauritius. And building a naval and air base on Assumption Island, North of Madagascar. “It’s the Indian Ocean, stupid,” quips one seasoned commentator. Japan has also flexed its naval muscle. It has been a stalwart contributor to the multinational naval force policing the seas off Somalia’s coast. China also makes African friends by selling arms. In the five years to 2015 it doubled its share of weapons supplied to sub-Saharan Africa, from little more than a tenth of the total to almost a quarter. African countries are good at playing off rivals against each other. Many have diversified their diplomatic links. Countries including Burundi, Mauritania and Togo, that used to fall within France’s sphere of influence have opened embassies in Britain. “This is a really great time for clever African countries to get really good deals”.