Photo/Illutration (The Asahi Shimbun)

On a weekday afternoon, the square in front of the Kenya National Archives in the capital of Nairobi is teeming with people waiting for buses, young couples out on dates and others getting off work.

Looming a few meters overhead, mushroom-like surveillance cameras are visible with the Huawei logo prominently inscribed on the equipment.

The effects of China’s digital dominance are now clearly visible close in Nairobi. Since 2015, Huawei has been commissioned by the Kenyan government to install a surveillance system known as “Safe City.”

The cameras are installed near busy intersections and a total of 1,800 cameras now keep a watchful eye on residents of Nairobi and Mombasa, Kenya’s second largest city.

Japan hasn't been invisible either in attempting to make inroads into Kenya and Africa. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced his nation's initiative about four years ago at the Kenyatta International Convention Center, located about 500 meters from the square in front of the national archives.

Abe outlined the Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy at the Sixth Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD), intended as a counterpoint to China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

The United States is a partner in the strategy, which seeks to counter Beijing's increasing influence. 

However, according to the U.N. Conference on Trade and Development, while the balance of direct investment in Africa by the United States in 2017 was at $50 billion (5.381 trillion yen) China was closing in with a total of $43 billion. Japan was not even in the top 10 nations for direct investment.

A clash of strategies is unfolding with the main arenas being Africa, Asia and the Pacific region. But the outcome has become even more uncertain because of the various effects from the novel coronavirus pandemic.

In March, when a curfew went into effect in Kenya to deal with the coronavirus outbreak, security police used tear gas to disperse a crowd trying to pack a ferry to return home. 

Surveillance cameras were also installed along the streets where local residents were fleeing from the tear gas and police.

As terrorist acts are all too common in Kenya, one 68-year-old taxi driver said he was not concerned about the surveillance cameras because he has never done anything wrong.

“It will serve as a strong deterrent against crime,” he said.

The Safe City surveillance cameras have now been installed in about 230 cities in 90 nations including China, but also mainly in Africa and Asia, keeping an eye on about 1 billion people.

Last year at an international forum on the Belt and Road Initiative, Chinese President Xi Jinping said, “We must build a digital Silk Road.”

A key to bringing about a new belt and road element by spreading a Chinese-style system using digital technology is the laying of a submarine cable system.

A cornerstone of that new element is the African nation of Djibouti, a key port connecting the Indian Ocean with Europe. One room of a state-run communications company building that faces the Arabian Sea holds coils of black cables covering the walls. Those cables are connected to undersea ones and stretch into the next room.

An executive of the company said, “Submarine cables are coming from thousands of kilometers away, landing here and connecting to countries in Africa.”

Next year, a separate submarine cable will enter the picture in a project called PEACE, for Pakistan & East Africa Connecting Europe.

The project was initially led by a Huawei subsidiary. Cables extending from Africa and Europe are connected in Djibouti and will be extended further  to China via Pakistan.

An executive with an African communications company said, “PEACE is a political project, because it goes through Pakistan. Land routes are riskier than sub-sea routes. Most of the sea routes between Europe and Asia go through the Malacca Strait, which is under the influence of the United States. They want alternatives.”

China is creating new Silk Roads on land, at sea and now even digitally.


It is said that about 95 percent of the data in the world is transmitted through submarine cables.

Until now, such cables have been dominated by Western nations and Japan. However, U.S. officials are increasingly concerned about China’s entry into the submarine cable sector.

A high-ranking White House official cautioned that if U.S. allies and friends began using the cable system involving China, there would not only be a risk of data leakage, but also a possible shutting off of that data should a war break out.

Eric Sayers, former special assistant to the commander of U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM), pointed out that “the accumulation of economic power and digital influence is the greatest concern in the next decade because it gives Beijing new tools as a revisionist power to try to coerce their neighbors and rewrite the order. It could impact the balance of national security.“

Due to such concerns, the Indo-Pacific region is on the front lines of the clash of strategies between a China that is spreading out its influence and the United States, which is trying to stop that spread.

In its Indo-Pacific Strategy Report released in 2019, the U.S. Defense Department warned, “Today, the Indo-Pacific increasingly is confronted with a more confident and assertive China that is willing to accept friction in the pursuit of a more expansive set of political, economic, and security interests.”

The United States had maintained its influence in the region through its military presence, but China is using its Belt and Road Initiative to bring nations in the region into its corner by wielding its growing economic power.

The United States is trying to recover lost ground through economic assistance, which until now has been one of its weak points.

In August 2019, Mike Pompeo became the first sitting U.S. secretary of state to visit Micronesia, where China has been making vast inroads. The surrounding area has strategic geopolitical importance as witnessed by the major presence of the U.S. Navy there.

Japanese government officials refer to the region as a “strategic crossroad.”

During his visit, Pompeo promised to provide financial assistance to three nations in the area in an attempt to strengthen ties.

However, since the United States does not have much experience in investing in Southeast Asia and the Pacific nations, the scale of its investment compares poorly with that of China.

For that reason, Washington is relying on its allies, including Japan.

In November 2019, the United States, Japan and Australia established the Blue Dot Network (BDN) to rate and certify infrastructure plans in the region.

The BDN would check if any corruption existed and assess if the investment amount proposed was appropriate. If a project met the conditions, the BDN would provide companies with low-interest loans to encourage further investment.

U.S. President Donald Trump described the BDN as “a major initiative to ensure countries around the world have access to private sector-led, sustainable and trustworthy options for high-quality infrastructure development.”

But the U.S. International Development Finance Corp. (DFC), which serves as the point agency in the BDN for the United States, only has a budget of about $60 billion for investment projects around the world.

In contrast, the Belt and Road Initiative is said to have an investment capacity of $565 billion, according to the World Bank.

Still, Adam Boehler, CEO of the DFC, said, “it's so important that we offer a significant alternative.”


Many of the nations in the Indo-Pacific region are maintaining their distance from both China and the United States to avoid becoming embroiled in problems stemming from the competing strategies of the two powers.

For example, in Myanmar a plan has been proposed to construct a high-speed railway traveling at 160 kph that would link Muse, which is situated in the northern Shan state bordering China, with Mandalay, Myanmar’s second largest city.

A related plan calls for constructing an expressway and railway to link Mandalay with Kyaukphyu, which faces the Bay of Bengal.

If the two plans are realized, it would link China’s Yunnan province with the Indian Ocean and create a new route for transporting people and products without passing through the Malacca Strait, which is under the strong influence of Western nations.

But those plans are not proceeding according to Beijing’s wishes because the Myanmar government has so far rejected calls by China for exclusive rights to develop the real estate along the proposed railway line.

For a long time, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) had welcomed American engagement in the region to prevent Chinese influence from becoming too strong.

However, that stance is changing because of the growing mistrust of the Trump administration due to the low priority it places on the region. 

ASEAN has hosted the East Asia Summit annually, but for the past three years Trump has not participated. Moreover, not even a Cabinet-level official was dispatched in Trump's place for last year’s gathering.

In August 2019, in a meeting with ASEAN member foreign ministers, Pompeo asked for their cooperation in pushing forward the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy.

However, one ASEAN diplomatic source who listened to that speech said, “We do not want to become involved in a confrontation between the United States and China.”

Other nations in the region have also expressed their concerns about the U.S. strategy.

At the Shangri-La Dialogue held in Singapore last year, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said, “Countries have to accept that China will continue to grow and strengthen, and that it is neither possible nor wise for them to prevent this from happening.”

Lee also pointed out that the Indo-Pacific strategy of Japan and the United States was more ambiguous than China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

Those moves led to ASEAN announcing its own Indo-Pacific initiative last year that called for “an Indo-Pacific region of dialogue and cooperation instead of rivalry.”

The initiative was mainly pushed by Indonesian President Joko Widodo who said in an interview with The Asahi Shimbun, “If we have our own concept, we can manage by our own willing.”

And although the United States also considers India an important partner in the region along with Japan and Australia, it has also established a clearly different position.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has said, “India’s own engagement in the Indo-Pacific Region--from the shores of Africa to that of the Americas--will be inclusive.”

Such a stance prompted India to announce its own Indo-Pacific Maritime Initiative in November 2019.

All these moves show that the more the United States tries various ways to bring nations into its corner, the more those nations will become cautious and try to distance themselves from Washington.


In 2015, the National Security Secretariat was told by a high-ranking government official, “Japan does not have a diplomatic strategy worthy of being called a strategy. Think of something.”

That led to Japan’s Indo-Pacific Strategy.

The foundation of that strategy was built on diplomatic concepts pushed by Abe.

When he began his second stint as prime minister in 2012, Abe clearly stressed competition with China.

A paper that appeared in a publication of an international nonprofit organization the day after Abe became prime minister a second time had him writing, “If Japan were to yield, the South China Sea would become even more fortified.”

He proposed what he called “Asia’s Democratic Security Diamond” that would involve close cooperation between Japan, the United States, Australia and India in an attempt to contain China.

But in 2018, a trip to China led Abe to switch course regarding Japanese policy toward Beijing and emphasize cooperation rather than competition.

A government source explained the reasoning behind that change.

“China began sending more positive signals in order to shake up Japan-U.S. ties as Beijing’s relations with Washington worsened,” the source said. “There were also greater calls from within the Abe administration to stress economic ties with China rather than national security.”

The switch came after Trump became U.S. president and pushed an extremely hard-line stance toward China.

A high-ranking U.S. government official expressed dissatisfaction at Japan’s turnaround since it had in the past criticized the Obama administration’s China policy as being too tolerant.

The change in course by the Abe administration while the United States continued its harsh bashing of China has allowed Japan to play the role of encouraging China to act more responsibly within the international community.

In 2018, Japan asked for the securing of greater transparency for projects as a precondition for partnering with China in cooperating in third-nation markets. In response, Xi said, “We will respect the laws of various nations while pushing the projects based on international regulations.”

A high-ranking Foreign Ministry official said, “Japan’s ‘sunshine’ policy led China to conform to international standards.”

But the problem facing Japan is how to bring cooperation with China mainly in the economic sector in line with its strengthening of the defense alliance with the United States

A government source admitted that the Abe administration was not united in its policy toward China, hinting at a rift between those mainly in the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry that want to stress business when pushing forward diplomatic efforts and those in the Foreign Ministry who emphasize national security and international norms.

The Japanese approach is increasingly becoming one of emphasizing the alliance with the United States for national security matters while mixing competition and cooperation with China in the business sector.

But unless the government comes up with a grander vision for its diplomacy that involves even more complicated formulas in an era of an intensified power struggle between the United States and China, it may end up simply wavering back and forth between those two powers.

Ken Jimbo, a professor at Keio University knowledgeable about the strategies of the two powers, said, “A strategy for the entire nation will be indispensable in resolving the confrontation within the government over which course to take and in deciding how to use Japan’s business sector to improve the national security environment.”

(This article was written by Atsushi Okudera in Nairobi, Eishiro Takeishi in Djibouti, Ryuta Sometaya and Akihiko Kaise in Bangkok, Senior Staff Writer Kenji Minemura, Takeshi Narabe and Senior Staff Writer Taketsugu Sato in Tokyo.)