If there is a modern gateway from the East to Africa, it is arguably Addis Ababa's airport. Passengers passing through its dusty terminals on their way to some far-flung capital will be surprised to find that getting an Ethiopian meal is remarkably difficult. Asian dumplings, however, are available at two different cafes. Signs marking the gates are in English, Amharic and Chinese, as are announcements.
Dozing gently on the beige loungers are untold numbers of young Chinese workers waiting for flights. They are part of a growing army of laborers, business people and engineers who can be seen directing the construction of roads, railways and ports across much of East Africa.
Concerns about China's involvement in Africa are often overplayed. Accusations that it is buying up vast tracts of farmland, factories and mines, for instance, are blown out of proportion. Even so, its growing influence on the continent has nettled India and Japan, who are both boosting their engagement in response.
As with previous rounds of rivalry in Africa, such as during the Cold War, at least some of this activity relates to access to bases and ports to control the sea. China's involvement in Africa now includes a growing military presence. Thousands of Chinese soldiers have donned the U.N.'s blue helmets in Mali and South Sudan, where several have been killed trying to keep an imaginary peace. Chinese warships regularly visit African ports.
China maintains a naval squadron that escorts mostly Chinese-flagged vessels through the Gulf of Aden. But some diplomats fret that China has been using these patrols to give its navy practice in operating far from home, including in offensive actions.
Patrolling for pirates has also given China an excuse to set up its first overseas base in Djibouti, next door to an American one. Yet the more alarmist worries about China — that it is planning to build naval bases in a "string of pearls" stretching from China to the Red Sea and as far as Namibia's Walvis Bay on the Atlantic coast — have not materialized.
Still, India is deeply suspicious of China's presence in the Indian Ocean. A wide network of some 32 Indian radar stations and listening posts is being developed in the Seychelles, Madagascar and Mauritius, among other countries. This will enable India to monitor shipping across expanses of the ocean.
Japan has also been flexing its naval muscle but in a more limited manner. Last month it pledged $120 million in aid to boost counterterrorism efforts in Africa. It has been a stalwart contributor to the multinational naval force policing the seas off Somalia's coast. Sino-Japanese rivalry is fiercest in diplomacy and trade. Two prizes are on offer: access to natural resources and markets, and the continent's 54 votes at the U.N.
Japan's latest spending spree on infrastructure will speed economic growth on the continent; but there is a degree of one-upmanship and duplication. Japan recently handed over the keys to a new cargo terminal at Kenya's main port in Mombasa. Meanwhile, a short hop down the coast, Bagamoyo, Tanzania, is building East Africa's biggest port with Chinese cash.
On the diplomatic front, both Japan and India are trying to find common cause with African states that want to reform the U.N. Security Council. Both Japan and China back up such diplomatic efforts with aid and, at least in China's case, this seems to have helped win it friends.