Tunisia and Japan launched a pan-African investment conference on Saturday, seeking to counter the influence of rival China whose economic imprint on the continent has steadily grown. The conference takes place amid a “complex” international environment caused by the coronavirus pandemic and the war in Ukraine, the Japanese foreign ministry has said. Some 30 heads of state and government are attending the event in the capital Tunis, at a time when the import-dependent North African nation is grappling with a deepening economic malaise. In his opening speech, Tunisian President Kais Saied urged delegates to “search together for ways for African peoples to achieve the hopes and dreams of the first generation after independence”. He praised Japan’s success in “achieving development at the same time as preserve its culture and social traditions”. “The world cannot continue as it was. With all its wealth and assets, Africa cannot watch its people live through poverty,” he said. The eighth Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD8) also comes as Beijing cements its influence on the continent with its “Belt and Road” infrastructure initiative. It is the first TICAD — held every three years either in Japan or an African country — since the pandemic began. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida will be attending remotely after testing positive for Covid-19. The Japanese delegation is being led by Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi, with about 5,000 participants set to attend. Morocco withdrew from the event and recalled its ambassador from Tunisia for consultations, after Saied hosted the head of Western Sahara’s Polisario independence movement. The conference will focus on three pillars: economy, society, and peace and stability. A slick promotional video said the conference aims to promote “African development led by African people”. But no journalists from African news outlets had been given access to delegates ahead of the event, except Tunisian state media, alongside Japanese journalists. Japanese economic paper Nikkei reported that aid to Africa could increase by 40 percent over the next three years, in response to other powers that have boosted their presence on the continent. At the last TICAD in 2019, former premier Shinzo Abe — who was assassinated at a campaign event last month — warned investors in Africa they must beware of burdening countries with “excessive” debt, an apparent swipe at China. Tunisian authorities hope their struggling economy will benefit from hosting the conference by attracting Japanese investment, particularly in the health, automotive and renewable energy sectors. The conference has sparked anger among Tunisians as major road closures threatened traffic disruptions in the capital.