Where is Japan in North Africa?

By Youssef Cherif
March 29, 2019

Japan is perhaps the most discreet global power in North Africa. Yet its ties with with Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco are old and strong. They would benefit from an additional effort from both sides, especially as a growing competition with China looms.

Only a handful of people in the region would think of Japan when mentioning their countries’ foreign partners. France, the former colonial power comes first, as well as the European Union as a whole. The US is often cited. So are Turkey and the Gulf countries (Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar). Now more and more people mention China or try to decipher its strategy in the region. However, when it comes to Japan, there is a question mark.

This ignorance of Japan is even more curious when one sees the projects that the latter helped put in place in the region. In Egypt, dozens of scientific, academic and cultural projects were established and continue to serve the local community. The Tunisian capital’s iconic -and widely used- bridge, for instance, was built thanks to Japanese technology; one of the country’s most important research center is affiliated to Tsukuba University, etc. In Morocco, Japan’s investments opened more than 40000 jobs, Japan becoming hence the Kingdom’s largest foreign employer and Japan is a major contributor to the Green Morocco Plan, etc.

And Japan has much more to offer, not least because of its similarities with North Africa. Although geographically limited, the country was able to maximize the use of its lands and develop a diverse agriculture, while at the same time setting-up a remarkable water management system. North Africa, a region lacking arable lands and threatened with water scarcity, can take Japan as a model and send its researchers and scientists there to learn. Japan’s development aid should continue to target these sectors and emulate the example of Tsukuba University in Tunisia; by establishing other research bodies and building more joint Japanese-North African research groups.

Also, like North African countries, Japan is a cash society where payments by credit card remain limited. Yet, unlike North Africa, it is not suffering from issues of petty corruption. For North African countries, where cash is often blamed for corruption, the Japanese model can be interesting. The Japanese model is easier to follow than the European one -which is often recommended by international (Western-dominated) institutions. Japanese agencies working on good governance should consider this point.

Moreover, and after a devastating war, Japan rebuilt itself for the better. This is a glimpse of hope for fragmented states such as Libya or crisis-ridden ones like Tunisia or Egypt: it is always possible to recover and even a nuclear Armageddon can be overcome. And perhaps as importantly, overcoming such difficulties can happen under a peaceful democratic system respecting the rule of law. In effect, many North African thinkers consider that moving beyond the crisis requires an authoritarian system; postwar Japan is an antidote to this fatalism. Hiroshima Institute of Peace, among other institutions, should take North African students and scholars to study in their premises and even consider the establishment of outposts in the region.

In the same line, North African leaders may benefit from learning about the Meiji Emperor. The restoration which started with the advent of the young leader transformed the country from a feudal state to a modern and powerful empire. The gradual reforms that the Japanese elite undertook, which occurred according to a well-crafted strategy, lasted forever and reshaped Japan without destroying its culture. As North Africa is going through a generational shift and a political mutation, often delayed by conservative or reactionary forces, the Meiji period can be a good place to consider for inspiration.

Nonetheless, future ties between Japan and North Africa may be jeopardized by the growing Chinese activism in the region. Thousands of Chinese workers now live between Morocco and Algeria. Chinese goods have flooded North African markets, China becoming Egypt’s and Algeria’s first; Morocco’s and Tunisia’s third import country. The Chinese are widely present in the Mediterranean through the Piraeus port in Athens (Greece) and the mobile navy fleet. Chinese investors are actively prospecting in North Africa, and their sight is becoming a regular feature even in Tunisia’s remote southern region. Most North African countries have joined Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and Confucius Institutes are spreading in the region. China’s strategy, which focused until now on sub-Saharan Africa, is clearly moving north and it will start a harsh competition.

Japan may benefit from calling for an extraordinary Tokyo International Conference for African Development (TICAD) meeting dedicated to North Africa and draft its own North African strategy. At a moment when China is flexing its muscles, Europe is trying to impose its conditional free trade agreements and Gulf countries actively promoting their political models, Japan should not sit aside. Its presence in the region as a reliable economic and development partner, peaceful with limited political interventionism, will be beneficial in the current context of great power rivalries. It would also secure its friends in the region and contribute to its own stature as a powerful G7 country.

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