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Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is welcomed Friday by local chiefs in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, at the start of his African tour.LUC GNAGO/Reuters

Japan's rivalry with China is going global. After years of jousting over obscure islands in the East China Sea and competing for Asian influence, the two countries are now battling for power in a new arena: Africa.

It's a region that Tokyo has long ceded to the Chinese, allowing Beijing to pile up massive economic and political capital across Africa. But on Friday, in a major shift in strategy, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe arrived in Ivory Coast to begin his first tour of sub-Saharan Africa – and the first by any Japanese prime minister in eight years.

Mr. Abe is expected to announce more than $14-billion (U.S.) in trade and foreign aid agreements during his five-day African tour. It's a dramatic escalation in Japan's stake in the African battleground, although certainly not enough to threaten China's commanding edge in trade and investment in Africa, nor its political clout here.

China's state media were quick to portray Mr. Abe's visit as an attempt to challenge Beijing in the African arena. Quoting several Japanese sources, state-owned China Daily said the Japanese leader is seeking to "contain" China's influence in Africa.

Another Chinese newspaper, Global Times, quoted Japan analyst Geng Xin as saying that Tokyo was "cozying up" to Africa to try to dispel Japan's image as an "economic giant and political dwarf." He said Japan is wooing the votes of African countries for its bid to become a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council.

A spokeswoman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, Hua Chunying, issued a veiled warning to Japan. "If there is any country out there that attempts to make use of Africa for rivalry, the country is making a wrong decision, which is doomed to fail," she told a press conference this week.

Japan criticizes Beijing for its tendency to build lavish headquarters and office towers as donations for African politicians – including, most famously, the new $200-million headquarters of the African Union in Addis Ababa, where Mr. Abe is scheduled to give a policy speech next week.

"Countries like Japan … cannot provide African leaders with beautiful houses or beautiful ministerial buildings," Mr. Abe's spokesman, Tomohiko Taniguchi, told the BBC.

Japan, he said, prefers to "aid the human capital of Africa."

But while the two countries take verbal shots at each other, the reality is that China has adopted a far more aggressive strategy in Africa, and has been enormously successful so far. China's investment in Africa was reported to be about seven times that of Japan in 2011, and its exports to Africa were about five times greater.

China has become the top trading partner, or second-biggest trading partner, of about half of Africa's countries. It is a major investor in Africa's resources sector, and the biggest buyer of oil and minerals from many African countries. Its construction companies are building roads, highways, railway lines, sports stadiums, transit systems and hospitals across Africa.

Japan will find it difficult to catch up to China's political influence here. China's leaders are frequent visitors to the continent. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi is currently in the middle of an African tour, and Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Africa last year on his first overseas trip as President. Beijing has cultivated close relationships with Africa's ruling parties, routinely inviting their officials on junkets to China.

Japan has lagged far behind in this race. Most of its engagement with Africa is as an aid donor. Last year it promised up to $32-billion in public and private assistance to Africa over the next five years, but this only confirmed its reputation as a donor, rather than a business partner.

Only a handful of Japanese investors are active in Ivory Coast, Ethiopia and Mozambique – the three countries that Mr. Abe is visiting in his current tour. According to a fact sheet by the Japanese government, there are only two Japanese companies in Ivory Coast and only one in Ethiopia.

Mr. Abe, who calls himself Japan's "top salesman," seems determined to propel Japan into a much more active role on the world stage. Last year, in the first year of his latest term as Prime Minister, he visited 25 countries around the world – including all 10 countries in Southeast Asia and most of the oil-producing countries in the Persian Gulf. He is expected to visit another six countries this month alone.

Africa is "a frontier for Japan's diplomacy," he told reporters as he departed on his latest overseas tour. He is bringing a delegation of Japanese business leaders with him on the tour, signalling his goal of shifting from aid to trade.

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