Tea Leaf Nation

The Friend of My Friend Is My Rival

Why China says Japan's prime minister is "hugging the Buddha's foot" on his Africa trip.

Alexander Joe/Staff, AFP/Getty Images
Alexander Joe/Staff, AFP/Getty Images

Japan and China have long competed for territory in the East China Sea, but the past week has drawn attention to a battle for influence elsewhere: Africa. On Jan. 9, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe began a week-long tour of the continent, which he called a "frontier for Japanese diplomacy." But Chinese state-run media have likened Abe's trip -- which coincided with the annual African tour of China's top diplomat -- to a Hail Mary play for power and influence.

Chinese diplomats and media have already averred that Japan was up to no good. In a Jan. 6 meeting with Ethiopia's foreign minister, China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi said that he "disapproved of certain countries," i.e. Japan, having "ulterior motives" in Africa. Wang also defended China's aid to and cooperation with Africa, which he claimed were "totally altruistic." On Jan. 8, China's foreign ministry spokesperson defended "China's sincere and selfless help" and urged "any countries that may be promoting contention" in Africa not to be "devious."

Multiple state-run Chinese news outlets have likened Abe's visit to "hugging Buddha's foot," which describes a last-minute prayer by someone inattentive during less desperate times. The party-run Global Times emphasized that Abe's visit was the first time a Japanese prime minister has toured Africa in eight years, while asserting that China's top diplomat had made the trip annually -- for 24 consecutive years. Japan has remained largely silent on China's continental ambitions, but Abe's spokesperson implied China buys off African leaders by building "beautiful houses or beautiful ministerial buildings," according to the BBC.

Japan and China have long competed for territory in the East China Sea, but the past week has drawn attention to a battle for influence elsewhere: Africa. On Jan. 9, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe began a week-long tour of the continent, which he called a "frontier for Japanese diplomacy." But Chinese state-run media have likened Abe’s trip — which coincided with the annual African tour of China’s top diplomat — to a Hail Mary play for power and influence.

Chinese diplomats and media have already averred that Japan was up to no good. In a Jan. 6 meeting with Ethiopia’s foreign minister, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi said that he "disapproved of certain countries," i.e. Japan, having "ulterior motives" in Africa. Wang also defended China’s aid to and cooperation with Africa, which he claimed were "totally altruistic." On Jan. 8, China’s foreign ministry spokesperson defended "China’s sincere and selfless help" and urged "any countries that may be promoting contention" in Africa not to be "devious."

Multiple state-run Chinese news outlets have likened Abe’s visit to "hugging Buddha’s foot," which describes a last-minute prayer by someone inattentive during less desperate times. The party-run Global Times emphasized that Abe’s visit was the first time a Japanese prime minister has toured Africa in eight years, while asserting that China’s top diplomat had made the trip annually — for 24 consecutive years. Japan has remained largely silent on China’s continental ambitions, but Abe’s spokesperson implied China buys off African leaders by building "beautiful houses or beautiful ministerial buildings," according to the BBC.

A Japanese official told the Associated Press on Jan. 9 that it was not Japan’s "intention" to compete with China. That seems prudent given the numbers: The BBC reported that Abe will likely pledge more than $14 billion in aid during his trip, while China promised in July 2013 to double its African aid to $20 billion per year.

Despite claims by Chinese officials that aid to Africa is "based on friendship," the continent has been an important soft power front that China is understandably unwilling to cede. But Africa’s development is hardly a zero sum game. Hiroyuki Takai, who directs research at a Tokyo-based trading company called Sumitomo, told the Financial Times that it was "good and healthy" for China and Japan to compete in Africa, which is likely to benefit financially from both countries’ interest.

Liz Carter is assistant editor at Foreign Policy's Tea Leaf Nation. She lived for several years in Beijing, China, where she wrote and translated three Chinese-English textbooks and studied contemporary Chinese literature at Peking University. Since returning to the United States, she has co-authored a book on subversive linguistic trends on the Chinese Internet and been interviewed about developments in China by the Christian Science Monitor, Forbes, the Washington Post's WorldViews, and PRI's The World. Twitter: @withoutdoing

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