Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Africa’s presidents, prime ministers and central bankers have been racking up frequent-flyer miles in recent months as East Asia’s booming economies host competing summits to make friends and influence people across the resource-rich continent.

Not to be outdone by China and India, Japan tomorrow will host its own trade-and-aid summit in Yokohama with representatives from 52 African nations, including over 40 African heads of state. The prize — access to markets, suppliers and customers on a vast continent rich in everything from oil, coal and uranium to cobalt, platinum and arable land for rice paddies.

Where European colonial powers of the 19th century grabbed African empires as a way to obtain access to critical resources, Asia’s Big Three are using the economics as a means to sign up allies and lock up markets.

“We want to play a major role in Africa,” Shigeyuki Hiroki, a lead organizer of the Yokohama summit, said in a press conference last week.

Japanese officials have already let it be known that Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda will welcome summiteers with a pledge to double Tokyo’s investment and aid in Africa in the next five years, including up to $4 billion in soft loans and $2.5 billion in other aid.

The Yokohama gathering comes on the heels of last month’s summit of African leaders in New Delhi, India — the first of its kind for the South Asian power.

The India meeting attracted 14 African leaders, including South African President Thabo Mbeki and Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, and resulted in promises of some $500 million in development assistance and a reported $5.4 billion in trade and investment credits from the Indian government.

And this year’s two summits come in the wake of the massive November 2006 conference in Beijing for some four dozen African heads of state, in which China’s government offered $9 billion in development aid and Chinese companies signed nearly $2 billion in bilateral commercial deals.

Chinese officials, including President Hu Jintao, and commercial firms have been conspicuous in building up African trade ties, which hit $55 billion last year.

Earlier this month, for example, a delegation of 43 Chinese companies led by Deputy Commerce Minister Gao Hucheng signed a bilateral trade accord with Malawi. China recently pledged $286 million in official grants, aid and soft loans to the Central African country, and the Chinese delegation announced new investments in Malawi’s mining, cement, tourism, farming and financial sectors.

Japan, still the richest of the Asian powers, has seen its relative position in Africa decline in recent years.

“In some respect, Japan has been missing from this kind of equation,” Stuart Comberbach, Zimbabwe’s ambassador to Japan, told the Reuters news agency.

Still recovering from a decade of slow growth and financial crisis at home, Japan has been cutting its foreign aid budget in recent years even as fast-growing China and India have been stepping up their foreign economic diplomacy.

But with virtually no domestic energy sources and a huge appetite for raw materials to feed its high-tech manufacturing sector, officials in Tokyo say this week’s three-day summit is tangible proof that Japan will compete with other Asian powers for commodities and trading partners.

In November, Japan signed a deal offering Botswana satellite technology to aid its mining sector in exchange for access to the country’s platinum, nickel and cobalt mines. Earlier this year, Japan’s foreign ministry opened new embassies in Botswana, Malawi and Mali.

Japan is spending over $5 million to host this week’s summit and Mr. Fukuda has vowed to meet personally with each African leader in attendance.

The race to lock up African resources and markets has its critics.

Economists warn that the exclusive trade and supply deals represent a new mercantilism in which Asia’s big rivals essentially bribe their way to economic security at the expense of the global trading system.

Human rights group say that the mass summits ease the pressure on repressive governments and major rights violators such as Sudan and Zimbabwe. Both will attend the Yokohama summit, although authoritarian Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe will not head his country’s delegation.

And some development specialists warn that the modern “Great Game” is creating new classes of haves and have-nots on the world’s poorest continent, as those countries without energy or valuable natural resources fall farther behind.

“If Africa does not move to solidify its collective bargaining, then summit diplomacy will adversely affect an individual nation´s leverage as ‘new oil powers’ emerge to hog international interest,” according to a new analysis by Elijah N. Munyi, development researcher for the Korea Institute for Development Strategy in Seoul.

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