The Herald (Harare)

Zimbabwe: Japan Joins Re-Engagement Bandwagon

Singapore — IN the clearest sign yet that Zimbabwe could beirreversibly breaking out of Western-imposed isolation, President Mugabe is heading to Japan for bilateral talks with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, at the premier's request, and also to attend an international conference on Africa's development.

He will join a galaxy of other African and world leaders at the Fifth Tokyo International Conference on African Development (Ticad) which opens in the Japanese city of Yokohama tomorrow.

The conference, held every five years, is part of Japan's attempt to forge closer co-operation with Africa especially in trade and investment, two areas its Asian rivals China and India have advanced several steps ahead of Tokyo on the African continent.

President Mugabe, who is accompanied on the trip by First Lady Grace Mugabe and several senior Government officials, is attending Ticad for the first time since the conference series started in 1993.

But the highlight of his visit is the scheduled bilateral meeting with Japanese premier Abe, the first time in over a decade that President Mugabe has held direct talks with a leader of a major Western-leaning country.Although Japan has not been forcefully critical of Zimbabwe as part of the Western regime change agenda in the last decade, it nonetheless joined the West in withdrawing direct aid to the Government, and instead channelled this through United Nations agencies and non-governmental organisations.

Tokyo also quietly discouraged Japanese businesses from investing in Zimbabwe - labelling the country risky - and similarly imposed a travel ban on Japanese tourists to Zimbabwe at some point.

But all this has changed, or is changing, prompted by a combination of Japan's economic imperatives, and fatigue over the unsuccessful Western regime change plot.

For over a decade, the West has been trying to unseat President Mugabe, but this remains as distant, if not worse, as at the beginning of the plot.

Meanwhile, neutrals like China and India moved in to exploit trade and investment opportunities in Zimbabwe at the expense of the "angry" West and allies such as Japan.

Tokyo, like China, India and other world economic powers, is hungry for Africa's natural resources, and Zimbabwe has plenty of this in its small belly - diamonds, nickel, platinum, gold, ferrochrome etc.

At the moment, Japan is limited to importing mainly nickel and ferrochrome from Zimbabwe, and does not mine or exploit any of the resources it craved from the country, something officials indicate Japanese businesses were very keen to do.

That explains Tokyo's change of heart towards Zimbabwe, a policy shift that started last August when delegations of Japanese businesses visited Harare and expressed strong interest to be let in on the abundant investment opportunities in the country, especially in the mining sector.

Japanese embassy officials in Harare indicate business and economic co-operation will be the centre-piece of the meeting between President Mugabe and Prime Minister Abe, the first time the leaders of the two countries have held face-to-face talks since 1989. He will be one of a few leaders that Abe will be meeting on the sidelines of Ticad, and strongly signals renewed Japanese interest in Zimbabwe, on one hand, and Tokyo's desire to normalise relations, on the other.

"Re-engagement is now in full swing," an official accompanying President Mugabe on the Japanese trip said, referring to similar recent overtures from Britain, the European Union and the United States.

"The fact that the President (Mugabe) is travelling to Japan at the invitation of the Japanese government is significant in the context of the isolation it has endured in the last decade, and the process of re-engagement underway," he added.

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