Japan will hold a major conference on African development this week amid growing competition with its regional rivals for influence in the poverty-stricken but resource-rich continent.
With China and India seeking to forge closer ties with the region and secure commodities to fuel their economic booms, the event is seen as a key opportunity for Japan to maintain its diplomatic clout.
Japan has invited 52 African countries to the Fourth Tokyo International Conference on African Development, which it hosts every five years along with the UN, the World Bank and other organizations.
Leaders from 44 African countries are expected to meet in Yokohama, southwest of Tokyo, including Sudanese President Omar al-Beshir and South African President Thabo Mbeki.
Talks will focus on tackling food shortages, boosting economic growth and reducing poverty.
Japan has long used aid as a key diplomatic tool. It was the world’s top donor in 1991, but its assistance is slipping as the debt-laden country tightens its belt.
Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda is expected to formally announce plans at the conference to double Japan’s financial assistance to Africa by 2012.
“We must bring more fresh money to help African partners,” Masato Kitera, director-general for African affairs, said at Japan’s foreign ministry.
Japan hopes to use some of its overseas development aid (ODA) to help spur badly needed private-sector interest in the war-ravaged continent.
Japanese companies “may hesitate to invest in Africa, judging the risk or the cost as too high,” Kitera said. “The Japanese ODA can reduce the risk or cost of the private sector going to Africa.”
The event, which is expected to draw 2,500 participants, comes as Japan looks to boost its diplomatic profile ahead of the G8 summit, which it will host in July.
Gaining support from African countries, which account for about 30 percent of the world’s nations, is key for Japan to achieve its diplomatic goals, such as a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, officials said.