Crossroads Asia

Can Japan and India Counter China in the Caucasus?

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Crossroads Asia

Can Japan and India Counter China in the Caucasus?

Japan and India’s growing connections to Armenia could form a new factor of influence.

Can Japan and India Counter China in the Caucasus?
Credit: Flickr/ young shanahan

The victory of Donald Trump in the U.S. presidential elections led many Asia-Pacific countries to reconsider their foreign policy strategy in the Asia-Pacific region. Today, most of the Pacific Rim countries that had linked their hopes to Washington — including Japan — are in search of additional political options. In this context, the emerging relationship between Japan and Armenia is of much interest now.

In September this year, these two states will celebrate the 25th anniversary of their diplomatic relationship. However, the history of Armenian-Japanese ties has much deeper roots. Japan was one of the first countries to recognize the independence of the First Republic of Armenia in 1919. In July 1920, Diana Abgar was appointed the diplomatic representative and consul general of Armenia in Japan. Enjoying great respect among the Japanese elites, Abgar developed a number of programs that were to contribute to the development of political and cultural dialogue between the two countries and peoples. Unfortunately, the geopolitical processes in the region led to the loss of Armenia’s independence and its entry into the Soviet Union. Thus, the first experience of cooperation between Japan and Armenia was short-lived but extremely important.

The first serious contacts with the authorities of Soviet Armenia were established by Tokyo after the earthquake in Spitak in 1988. Japan sent much humanitarian aid and more than 30 rescue teams to the damaged areas. In turn, during the natural disaster in Japan in 2011, Armenia sent humanitarian aid and specialists to help the country. According to Eiji Taguchi, Japan’s ambassador to Armenia, there is a human touch to cooperation between the two nations, as well as very good diplomatic relations both bilaterally and within the framework of international organizations.

However, for a long time, the dialogue between the two countries was limited. During this period, the basis of bilateral relations was the economic dialogue that developed under the aegis of the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA). Over the past ten years, this organization has made a great contribution to the modernization of the Armenian economy. For example, in 2010, with the financial support of Japanese corporations, a modern thermal power plant was built in Yerevan. To date, Japan has allocated more than $400 million to modernize the energy sector in Armenia.

Another direction of cooperation is high technology. Tokyo is one of the world’s leaders in this field. In turn, the Armenian IT market is now dynamically developing. Many Japanese companies and experts actively cooperate with their Armenian colleagues. It is noteworthy that President Serzh Sargsyan awarded Japanese expert Tsugio Makimoto a prize for his international contributions to the IT sphere. Later, Makimoto wrote a book where he stressed that Japan and Armenia have a great potential for collaboration.

The active development of economic dialogue can become an essential foundation for building deeper political relations. Undoubtedly, for a long time, Japan has not regarded the Caucasus as a region of geopolitical significance. However, much has changed over the past eight years.

Nowadays, China has grown increasingly active in the region, conducting a number of programs in Armenia. Yerevan and Beijing signed many agreements on bilateral cooperation in the economic, political, and military-technical spheres. Armenia has also agreed to participate in the Chinese Belt and Road project. Besides that, officially Beijing shows great interest in the development of railway connections between Yerevan and Tehran.

Despite dynamic relations with Armenia, China is also developing dialogue with Georgia and Azerbaijan. The latter is the main opponent of the Republic of Armenia. Thus, Beijing is spreading a wide net to gain political weight in a region that is traditionally considered to be Russia’s sphere of influence.

It is possible to get access to the large Eurasian block through Armenia. Yerevan is not only the strategic ally of Russia in the region but also a member of all the Eurasian integration structures: the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), the Customs Union, and the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). In addition, it is necessary to take into account that the Armenian political factor is not limited to the region or even the continent.

Today, powerful Armenian lobbying organizations are operating around the world. They exert significant influence on the political decision-making process in the United States, the European Union, and Latin America. Besides that, the diaspora in Russia (two million Armenians) is gradually becoming a significant factor in Moscow’s policy in the Caucasus. China appears to be the first Asian country that could appreciate the advantages of cooperation with Armenia in the long term. Moreover, given the weakening of the positions of Washington and Brussels, Beijing has a chance to become one of the dominant players not only in Armenia but also in the region.

Without any doubts, Yerevan and Beijing will continue to develop bilateral cooperation, based on the pragmatic interests of the two sides. However, from an economic point of view (which is the most important thing for China), it will be more profitable for Beijing to deepen its dialogue with Azerbaijan. For Baku, which does not trust Russia and is in crisis with the West, China can serve as an alternative.

With this in mind, Yerevan should be objectively interested in political diversification. In this context, trilateral dialogue involving Japan, India, and Armenia can become very attractive. Today, Delhi and Tokyo are interested in checking the excessive influence of China not only in the Asia-Pacific region but also on the different parts of the Eurasian continent.

Given that Yerevan knows about the strategic alliance between China and Pakistan, which has not recognized the independence of the Republic of Armenia and provides military-technical assistance to Azerbaijan, Armenia is interested in expanding political and military-technical ties with Tokyo and Delhi. For example, if Azerbaijan uses offensive weapons purchased from Pakistan, Armenia can acquire anti-missile systems from India.

Two months ago, an Indian delegation headed by Vice President Mohammad Hamid Ansari visited Yerevan. During the meeting with the leadership of the country, Ansari stressed that Armenia acquired importance through its associated relations with the north, the west and the east. It is noteworthy that for the first time in 25 years, the parties discussed issues of regional security, including the settlement of the Karabakh-Azerbaijani conflict. This topic is especially interesting because Azerbaijan supports Pakistan’s position on the Kashmir problem.

A month later, President Sargsyan received Deputy Foreign Minister of Japan Motome Takisawa in Yerevan. The sides noted the positive dynamics of the development of bilateral relations between Armenia and Japan. Sargsyan pointed out that the establishment of diplomatic missions opened new opportunities for the further development of friendship and partnership between the two states. It was also said that the mutual visits, which have recently become more active, indicate a readiness to expand the political dialogue between Armenia and Japan.

Based on these interactions, today we are seeing not only the deepening of Armenia-Japan and Armenia-India relations, but also the formation of new centers of power in the Caucasus.

Areg Galstyan, Ph.D., is head of The Armenian Interest scientific and analytical center and a regular contributor to The National Interest, Forbes, the American Thinker, and the Hill.