Second sun rising - Japan's overtures to South Africa

With America become more ineffectual in maritime security and China's influence growing, Japan is seeking friends abroad. South Africa could benefit.

Robert Duigan


Robert Duigan


Jul 6, 2024

Second sun rising - Japan's overtures to South Africa

This week, the Japan Maritime Self-Defence Force (JMSDF) marked an historic occasion with the arrival of two training ships in Cape Town, their first visit since the force's establishment post-World War II. The visit coincides with the anniversary of the Japan Self-Defence Force's foundation in 1954, highlighting Japan's post-war recovery and ongoing contributions to global peace, including UN peacekeeping and anti-piracy operations in Africa.

The bigger picture

But the visit wasn’t the only overture Japan made to South Africa this year. After five years of declining trade, the Japanese seem keen to pursue deeper ties. According to the South African Chamber of Commerce in Japan (SACCJ), business ties are expected to expand, but are focused on specific industries, namely agriculture. As SACCJ chairman Simon Farrell explained in a recent interview, it is Japan courting South Africa rather than the other way around:

“South Africa relies heavily on domestic food production for consumption and for export, which can put us at the mercy of currency exchange fluctuations. Japan imports South African seafood, fruits, cereals, vegetables, nuts, coffee, and, of course, [wines and rooibos]. But the amounts in cash terms are much less than our traditional exports of precious stones and metals […] we would like to see Japan import more of our delicious products, such as fresh avocados, which Japan finally approved for import from our country in November 2023. The SACCJ is not involved directly in advocacy, so we leave that to the Government experts and advise them when they ask us for feedback from our members.”

At home, the Japan-South Africa Business Forum was launched only two years ago, and was immediately hampered by a major diplomatic snub when Japan declined to invite South Africa to the 2023 G7 conference following South Africa’s Russia-friendly stance on the war in the Donbas. But this may also have been a reciprocal reaction, given South Africa’s refusal to attend the Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD) because of Morocco’s presence.

Last year’s visit by Blade Nzimande also led to a new MoU with the respective countries’ departments of trade, initiating the Quality and Productivity Improvement (QPI) training programme to get South African manufacturing up to standard for collaborating with its higher-quality Japanese counterparts.

TICAD will meet again in just under two weeks to begin planning for the 2025 summit, and will be hosted by the African Development Bank, so the overtures this past year may well pay dividends. Since 2020, Japanese FDI has grown by 75%, from ¥327 billion to ¥573 billion in 2023, increasing by steady increments each year after a rapid annual decline from 2016 to 2020. Trade figures have been slow to catch up, but the groundwork is already being laid for much stronger ties.

Much of Japan’s new focus on Africa has to do with three things - maritime security, competition with China and Russia, and an ageing population, the latter being a problem it shares with its giant neighbour to the west. By outsourcing manual labour, both countries are aiming to reduce pressure on domestic labour markets. But also, Africa as usual is seen as a source of raw materials for manufacturing, and our biggest export to Japan remains platinum.

In its overall foreign policy, Japan adopts a strategy of "tactical hedging," balancing alliances with Western-aligned states while accommodating East and Southeast Asian preferences, particularly through ASEAN.

Maritime security

Maritime security is critical for Japan, with over 99 percent of its trade volume transported by sea. Under the U.S.-Japan security alliance, the U.S. ensures regional stability and open sea lanes, while Japan provides key military bases for the U.S.

But with the declining U.S. potentially adopting a more inward-looking foreign policy, Japan has increasingly looking to compensate with their own efforts. This was illustrated by the Red Sea crisis, where Houthi rebels seized a Japanese-operated ship, with no support from the US.

Trade rerouting past the Cape of Good Hope during this period saw many ships braving a much longer journey while declining to refuel or refit in South Africa, due to the terrible quality of our ports. While recent figures show a bounce back from rock bottom after the woman responsible for wrecking the National Ports Authority was removed and promoted to head of Transnet, conditions are still sub-par.

China's assertive actions in the eastern oceans have also raised Japanese concerns.

In maritime security, Japan’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) vision is the cornerstone of its foreign policy. FOIP encompasses various actions by Japan, both state-led and encouraged private enterprises, to preserve freedom of navigation in the Indian and Pacific Oceans, where China’s influence has grown considerably in recent years, as has insecurity, with piracy stemming from instability in the Middle East and North Africa.

The FOIP brands itself as an arm of the Liberal International Order (LIO), to bolster the post-war system of maritime security guarantees led by the United States following its conquests in the Second World War. Despite the LIO's flaws, it sustains the global commercial system. As a major subordinate ally of the United States, Japan advocates for LIO ideals through FOIP. Thus, Japan views Africa's eastern coastline as a strategic area to mitigate resource dependency and bolster economic interests.

FOIP is closely tied to the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) nations: Japan, Australia, the U.S., and India. However, this approach was not well-received in East and Southeast Asia. Consequently, Japanese policymakers have shifted to a more generic focus on "rule of law" in 2017, to garner broader acceptance, even among adversarial states.

In practice FOIP involves development assistance, particularly in East Africa. Japan's Official Development Assistance (ODA) emphasizes transparency, rules-based engagement, and debt sustainability. Projects include upgrading Port Mombasa and constructing a bridge to Mombasa Island, as well as Japan's first permanent military base in Djibouti, combining soft and hard power. Initially focused on combating piracy, the base also protects Japanese assets in northern Africa.

Soft power

But they have also begun to foster softer and more longstanding civil ties with South Africa, from academia, to agriculture, development and manufacturing. This August, the 6th South Africa-Japan University (SAJU) Forum, hosted by Stellenbosch University, marked a significant expansion in their involvement at the institution.

Much of the research is focused on industry, trade and development, but the centre is also offering Japanese language and culture courses. The forum will gather academics, government officials, and industry leaders to reinforce existing partnerships and plan future initiatives.

Inaugurated in Hiroshima in 2007, the SAJU Forum has evolved to include participants from government, industry, and funding agencies, expanding its scope and impact. It promotes mobility networks, exchange programmes, joint research, and institutional partnerships.

The Embassy of Japan in South Africa has also unveiled the Grant Assistance for Grassroots Human Security Projects this March, aimed at supporting Non-Profit Organisations (NPOs) through small-scale development initiatives. This grant scheme is open to projects based in South Africa, Lesotho, and Eswatini.

With an approximate maximum funding amount of  R1.2 million, the programme prioritises applications from NPOs engaged in education, healthcare, agriculture, forestry, fisheries, and social welfare. This funding cap is based on 10 million Japanese Yen, subject to exchange rate fluctuations.

But the Japanese seem keen to avoid becoming political in this endeavour - eligible entities include registered NPOs, such as community-based organisations, primary and secondary schools, hospitals, clinics, and local governments, with a minimum of three years' experience in their respective fields. The grant excludes projects with uncertain grassroots benefits, commercial activities, and initiatives with political, missionary, or military objectives. Additionally, consumables, small fixtures, and running costs are generally not financed.

Green energy

Following a visit from Minister Nzimande last year, the Japanese have now joined the Dutch and the Germans in pursuing “green hydrogen” technology in South Africa. Japan's Jogmec and Germany's H2Global Foundation have announced a strategic partnership to advance the sector, which has a political dimension, in that it aims to shape regulatory frameworks.

However, this is likely an industry boondoggle to take advantage of green energy subsidies, as it is in much of the western world. The Japanese government plans to invest JPY 3 trillion ($20.3 billion) over 15 years to subsidize low-carbon hydrogen production. Starting this year, the government will offer contracts-for-difference-style subsidies for both domestic and imported green hydrogen, with a total investment target of JPY 15 trillion over the same period.

South Africa has, since the late years of Mandela’s administration, been in lockstep with China on foreign policy, and increasingly been offering them strange and sometimes outrageous advantages in the South African market, including the Limpopo SEZ, where South Africa effectively built and paid for the infrastructure for a small Chinese colony, special treatment for Chinese communities by SAPS, overseen by Chinese police officials, and more recently, Temu’s loss-leading and tax-skirting practices in the online retail sector.

With China seeking ever-greater influence over its partners on the continent, pursuing trade ties with Japan may be a good way for South African businesses to hedge their bets and influence the government to take more reasonable stances, without pushing too hard on Western ties that could rub the state the wrong way.

more articles by this author