The geopolitical rivalry between Japan and China is, of course, deep-rooted and includes bloody events during World War II such as the Nanjing Massacre of 1937. During the massacre, the Japanese army murdered an estimated 200,000 to 300,000 people and raped between 20,000 and 80,000 Chinese women. Chinese citizens still harbor much resentment about the crimes of the Japanese, and do not believe they have expressed remorse about their wrongdoings.
Today, however, the major reasons for contention are the South China Sea and the islands in the East China Sea. In the South China Sea, China is increasing its military presence, including establishing bases on artificial islands. The South China Sea is strategically important for Japan, as nearly 60 percent of the country’s energy sources reach the country via this sea. China’s increasing maritime presence is therefore, a cause for nervousness for Japan. The Philippines are also feeling Chinese encroachment. This eventually led to an international tribunal in The Hague to settle the case. In July 2016, the tribunal ruled against China’s claim of the waters, asserting that China’s presence exceeds the geographic and substantive limits of China’s maritime entitlements. The tribunal also accused China of endangering the marine environment in the area. China has firmly rejected the tribunal’s decision.
In addition to the above-mentioned controversy in the South China Sea, China and Japan are also facing a crisis in the East China Sea. The Diaoyu Islands (known as Senkaku to the Japanese) have long been claimed by both nations. These small islands are significant because they possess rich fishing grounds and large untapped deposits of natural gas. China is currently building a 544 million USD military base close to the islands, and Japan has also recently built a new radar station nearby. The citizens of both nations closely follow the case of these islands and Chinese consumers have even staged mass boycotts of Japanese products in what they perceive as continued aggression from the Japanese.
In the face of this rivalry, Japan has long relied on its long-time ally, the United States, to stand by it. At the time of the writing of this report, Donald J. Trump has claimed victory in the 2016 American presidential elections. And one of Trump’s stances in his anti-globalization campaign was that Japan, along with other traditional American allies, must pay more for American protection. Because Mr. Trump has yet to articulate any substantive plans, it remains unknown how the Sino-Japanese rivalry will be affected by his presidency.
It is therefore against this backdrop that Japan and China are competing in Africa. To start with, both China and Japan have sought out the tiny African nation of Djibouti as a military base. China is currently building its very first overseas military outpost on a 90-acre plot in Djibouti and it is due to be completed in 2017. Although Chinese government officials have expressed that they do not intend to build huge bases like those of the United States, they have also signaled that President Xi Jin Ping’s administration plans on “steadily advancing overseas base construction.”
The strategic importance of Djibouti cannot be overemphasized. An estimated 20 percent of the world’s trade and half of China’s oil imports pass through the nearby Gulf of Aden. Many refugees hailing from countries such as Yemen, Somalia and Eritrea have also sought passage through the country. In addition, the country is a strategic necessity in anti-terrorism efforts against Al-Shabaab and Al-Qaeda.
Hence, it is not surprising that Japan is also staking its claim in this geopolitical nexus. Since 2011, a Japanese military contingent consisting of 180 troops has occupied a 30-acre base with plans to lease some more real-estate for the mission. Japan has so far utilized its base as a standby for the evacuation of Japanese citizens from the civil war in nearby South Sudan. It has also been a part of an international force, which includes China, and operated a naval patrol aircraft that hunts pirates in the region and off the coast of Somalia.
China and Japan are, of course, not the only ones with military interests outside their own nations. The Wall Street Journal reports that a handful countries have bases outside of their own borders, with the United States accounting for the most with a presence in 42 foreign nations. The United States, which also boasts a 4,000-personnel base in Djibouti, is reported to be uneasy about China’s presence there. In the same report, the Wall Street Journal quotes Maj. Gen Kurt Sonnag, commander of the US forces in Djibouti saying, “We’re strictly reliant upon the Djiboutian government to make sure that anybody who might be adversarial are separated appropriately.”
Djibouti’s leadership knows that countries which lease its land for military purposes are bound to compete against one another. After all, it also serves as a base for France (Djibouti’s former colonial ruler), Germany, Spain and Italy. As China’s presence in Africa, and certainly in Djibouti, is growing, Djibouti has sought to calm the anxieties of the Western countries which rely on it for their influence in the region. Djibouti’s foreign minister, Mahamoud Ali Youssouf has written, “Some people have questioned whether China’s decision to establish a presence in Djibouti means that our nation’s ties with the United States are weakening. The answer is simple—no.”
With the uncertainty coming from the Trump administration, it is unsurprising that Japan feels threatened by China’s rise in both Asia and Africa. Perhaps that is why Japan is reviving its relations with the African continent. For instance, the above-mentioned TICAD conference, which was originally held every five years, has now increased its frequency to three years. In addition, Nairobi hosted the 2016 TICAD conference, which was the first time an African country hosted the gathering since its inception 23 years ago. Previously, it had always been held in Japan. This perhaps signals that Japan is tilting towards Africa as an essential partner in the 21st century.
But for Africans, competition between China and Japan can be very good news. The continent seeks to attract as much foreign investment as possible as it realizes its potential. As World Bank President Yong Kim pointed out, “I don’t think there is any shortage of opportunity [in Africa] for both China and Japan, so I think it’s a healthy competition. I think both Prime Minister [Shinzo] Abe and President Xi Jin Ping understand that having influence in the world as a whole, whether it be in Asia or in Africa, is important. And that’s very, very welcome because it’s going to mean good things for Africa.”