Last week, Japanese government officials announced that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe would visit five Central Asian countries in October. Abe’s trip aims to strengthen economic links with the energy-rich region. This announcement is the latest step in a trend that is seeing Japan pay more attention to Central Asia. Indicators of deepening ties between Japan and Central Asia have ranged from the declaration of the need for economic cooperation with Uzbekistan to increased investment in Turkmenistan’s natural gas industry and Caspian Sea port construction project.
Japan’s expanded diplomatic overtures can be explained in two main ways. First, they could be seen as a means of balancing against China. If true, this would effectively be a form of unwitting indirect assistance to Russia, whose own traditional hegemony in Eurasia is being seriously challenged by China’s growing trade ties and economic presence in the region.
Alternatively, Japan might simply prefer to see a little more diversity of interest in Central Asia, with itself, India, and the United States competing for influence with the dominant Russia-China rivalry.
Recent developments suggest that this second explanation of Japan creating a multipolar Central Asia is more accurate. While optimism over a potential thaw between Japan and Russia has heightened, Japan’s decision to revisit the Kuril Islands dispute and to demand Russian adherence to the 2001 treaty, indicates that any rapprochement with Putin has its limits. Japan’s $300 million loan to Ukraine also clearly demonstrates its normative opposition to continued Russian sovereignty violations in Crimea and Donbas.
Japan has sent similar mixed messages towards China. Historic bilateral talks with China earlier this month have occurred simultaneously with Japan’s fierce condemnations of Chinese oil platform development in the East China Sea. Consequently, the notion that Japan is uniformly balancing against China in Eurasia or tacitly seeking to increase Russian influence relative to China’s in Central Asia is not supported by its recent conduct.
Analysis of the recent rise in Japanese involvement in Central Asia should be detached from broader geopolitics, as Japan’s interests are in competition with those of both China and Russia. Japan’s Eurasia strategy is two-pronged. First, Japan is stepping up its technological investment in Central Asian energy markets to compensate for the abrupt end of its reliance on nuclear power. Second, Japan wants to prevent China’s One Belt, One Road project from monopolizing control over the region’s warm water ports.
The origins of Japan’s enhanced cooperation with Central Asia can be traced back to August 28, 2004, when the foreign ministers of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan held a multilateral summit with the then Japanese foreign minister. The 2004 Astana summit’s “Central Asia plus Japan framework” pledged deeper cooperation between Japan and Central Asian countries on counterterrorism, economic development, and human security issues. Even Turkmenistan, renowned internationally for its isolation and policy of permanent neutrality, took part in this framework as an observer. The Central Asia plus Japan framework demonstrates that Japanese energy interests in Eurasia predate Putin’s belligerent anti-Western foreign policy tilt, and China’s New Silk Road program. It also confirms that Japan’s involvement in Central Asia is driven primarily by factors independent of geopolitical rivalries.
The suspension of Japan’s nuclear power plants following the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster increased the earnestness of Japanese diplomatic overtures towards Eurasia. On September 12, 2013, Abe and Turkmenistan’s president Gurbanguly Berdimukhamedow signed a Joint Declaration of Partnership. This declaration consisted of $10 billion in Japanese corporate contracts with Turkmen construction and gas industries. Japan has also pursued soft power-building initiatives with the reclusive Turkmen regime. The translation of Berdimukhamedow’s ideological treatises into Japanese is the most striking consequence of these efforts.
This benchmark deal with Turkmenistan is mirrored by Japan’s extension of its well-established nuclear energy cooperation initiatives with Kazakhstan to the oil and gas sector. Japanese Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary Masayoshi Kamohara in a 2014 interview praised Japan’s long-standing ties to Kazakhstan dating back to the 1997 Silk Road project. He argued that Japanese linkages were a natural product of different comparative advantages: an exchange of Japanese human resources for Kazakhstan’s natural resources. Kazakhstan and Japan, by 2014, possessed 70 corporate joint ventures ranging from oil to uranium to green energy cooperation (as evidenced by the launch of the Toyota Fortuners production line).
It is important to emphasize that energy is only one sphere of cooperation between Japan and Eurasia. Japan has been able to transcend the vast normative divergence between its democratic values and Central Asia’s authoritarian model of governance to achieve its broader ends in the region. The Japan-Uzbekistan bilateral summit earlier this month, for instance, encompassed humanitarian and cultural issues as well as economic investment. Nuclear non-proliferation has also emerged as an area of cooperation between Japan and Kazakhstan. Japan’s strict post-World War II non-nuclear policy has proven highly compatible with Kazakhstan’s ban on nuclear testing and trailblazing position as the first CIS country to handover its nuclear weapons to Russia.
Japan has also been careful to avoid being criticized for neo-colonial exploitation of Central Asian resources. It has pre-empted possible resistance to its Eurasia policy through investments that will diversify and strengthen the region’s economies in the long run. Japan’s investments in infrastructure, chemical enterprises, and a $1.7 billion gas-to-liquids project in Turkmenistan exemplifies how Tokyo has been willing to adopt the most appealing aspect of China’s Central Asia strategy: the provision of investment aimed at genuine economic development rather than mere short-term extraction.
The Role of Warm Water Ports
The second major component of Japan’s Eurasia’s strategy is ensuring that the Russia-China dominated Shanghai Cooperation Organization does not monopolize access to warm water ports in the region. During a Turkmen diplomatic delegation visit to Japan from July 15 to July 17, 2015, Japan declared its interest in investing $2 billion in a new port in Turkmenbashi City. Japanese business elites have praised this project as the perfect confluence of Japanese technological know-how and Turkmenistan’s resource wealth.
Turkmenistan has high economic growth potential, encapsulated by The Diplomat’s Nicola Contessi’s recent depiction of the country as the “next Central Asian tiger.” Therefore, new shipyards and ports will be essential for Turkmenistan’s economy to leverage its resource wealth in negotiations with China, India, and the EU. Turkmenistan will also hope to use these infrastructural improvements to broaden its economically lucrative linkages with the Asia-Pacific Region.
Japan cannot financially compete with China’s One Belt, One Road project, which has pledged $240 billion in infrastructure investments ranging from maritime ports to sophisticated canals. Nevertheless, Tokyo has been proactive in ensuring that it is not shut out from Central Asia’s emerging markets. Bloomberg cited Japan’s success in outbidding China for port access in Bangladesh, as a harbinger of an asymmetrical China-Japan Great Game in Central Asia.
Therefore, Japan’s entry into the Central Asian energy markets and infrastructure investment race should be analyzed independently of the broader Russia-China competition for influence in Eurasia. Japan is not seeking to balance against either Russia or China. Rather it is concerned that both of these great powers will stymie Japanese attempts to gain access to an energy-rich region with burgeoning economic development prospects. The success of diplomatic negotiations in Abe’s five-country October trip will go a long way in determining the long-term success of these efforts.
Samuel Ramani is an MPhil student at St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford in Russian and East European Studies. He is also a journalist who is a regular contributor to the Huffington Post Politics andWorld Post verticals, and recently to the Kyiv Post.