Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s recent lightning visit to five Central Asian countries and Mongolia forms a landmark in Japan’s Eurasian diplomacy. No other Japanese Prime Minister had ever visited these countries in a single trip. To be sure, in 2006 Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi visited Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.
Since assuming office in December 2012, Abe has been extensively travelling across continents to widen the reach of Japan’s diplomacy. His frequent trips within the Asia-Pacific region have been made to add a new thrust to his diplomacy directed at keeping Japan in global focus.
Japan’s Central Asian policy has two major objectives. First, Tokyo is deeply interested in the region which is very rich in natural resources like gas, oil, uranium, rare earth and other minerals. This aspect has assumed greater salience in the post-2011 Fukushima years when Japan has been deprived of the benefit of nuclear energy and has to find substitutes like natural gas, oil and coal. The second objective is that Tokyo does not want to see China enjoy a dominant position in the region. Japan’s strategic interests could be safeguarded only if the region maintained its multipolar structures. But Japan is realistic enough to understand China’s strength as exemplified in its One Belt and One Road strategy. In addition, all Central Asian countries are members of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) which could boost China’s influence in the region. Even Russia would not like China to control the region and may not be averse to seeing Japan raise its profile in Central Asia. Russia and China do not share the same vision for the region and there are areas of suspicion and scepticism about each other’s goals. For Russia Central Asia is its backyard, but China considers the region as a vital strategic link in its One Belt One Road strategy.
Considering the economic and strategic significance of the region, many analysts feel that it is essential for Tokyo not only to clearly articulate its deep interest in the region, but also to come out with some concrete measures to back it. As for Japan’s diplomatic role in the region, they consider Japan a late starter despite many advantages it enjoyed for fostering closer relations with the countries of the region. But until the end of the cold war, development of warm relations between the two was almost impossible because of the strong influence of the Soviet Union over these countries and the estranged Soviet-Japanese relations due to the territorial issue and the absence of a peace treaty. Further, given the cold war dynamics, the United States was keen to see that its East Asian ally did not develop closer ties with its cold war adversary.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union, things started changing and both Japan and the Central Asian states were inclined to see each other in the light of the changing geo-strategic situation. Gradually they started establishing diplomatic ties and conducting commercial and trade activities. Exchange of leaders and important officials soon followed. Official development assistance (ODA) was extended by Japan to almost all Central Asian countries. In 1997, the Silk Road diplomacy concept was formulated for Japan’s policy towards Central Asia. In 2002, Prime Minister Koizumi dispatched a Silk Road energy mission to the region to explain how Japan could cooperate with them. In 2004, Tokyo set up the Central Asia Plus Japan framework which was attended by the foreign ministers of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Turkmenistan participated as an observer. The new forum pledged close cooperation between Japan and the Central Asian states on economic development, human security and counter terrorism.
The forum has met five times since then. The forum has also been supported by the regular meetings of the senior officials (SOM). Further, an additional supporting mechanism called the Tokyo Dialogue has also been meeting regularly once in four years. Through these institutional mechanisms, Japan has sought to achieve close consultation and cooperation with the region. Japan has always called itself a “catalyst” for promoting regional cooperation.
But the country that took the maximum advantage of the collapse of the Soviet Union was China. In 1996, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) was formed with Kazakhstan, Kirgizstan, Tajikistan and Russia as members. Since then, China has consolidated its strong position in the organisation which has also expanded its membership. China’s trade with the region was only $1 billion in 2000, but by 2014, the volume jumped to $50 billion. Between 2005 and mid- 2014, China’s investment in the region amounted to $31 billion and it covered a wide spectrum of fields including oil and gas pipelines, oil and gas exploration, power plant financing, and electric grid construction.
During his whirlwind trip to Central Asia, Abe stressed that Japan would put in all efforts to a) make the region’s industries more sophisticated and improve human resources, b) resolve various challenges faced by the region, and c) deepen the Japan-Central Asia partnership on the global stage.
In tangible terms, Abe was able to sign many agreements with the courtiers of the region. With Turkmenistan, agreements worth about $18 billion were signed. Though full details of the agreements are still not available, they include construction of gas processing plants, and a chemical plant as well as a fertiliser plant. Similarly, Abe signed a Y12.7 billion ( $105 million) agreement for development assistance with Uzbekistan. Abe also pledged an amount of Y 13 billion ( $107 million ) to Kyrgyzstan for improvement in infrastructural facilities. Similar agreements were also signed with Tajikistan and Kazakhstan.
Finally, Prime Minister Abe has activated Japan’s Central Asian diplomacy like no other Japanese leader did before. However, Abe is realistic enough to understand the enormous influence that China in particular wields in the region. Rather than seeking to supplant that influence, Abe only wants to project Japan as an important and useful partner in the Central Asian scene. Abe only wants to ensure that a certain degree of openness and multi-polarity would be essential for the evolving situation in the Central Asian region.
(Prof K.V. Kesavan is a Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi)
Courtesy: ORF- PM Abe’s new thrust to Japan’s Central Asian strategy
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