Crossroads Asia

Central Asia and Japan: 15 Years of Multilateral Cooperation

Issues of trade, transport, investment, tourism, and security topped the agenda at the 7th Central Asia + Japan dialogue.

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Central Asia and Japan: 15 Years of Multilateral Cooperation
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On May 18, 2019 in Dushanbe, the seventh meeting of the Ministers of Foreign Affairs of Japan and the countries of Central Asia was held in the format of the “Central Asia + Japan” dialogue.

The dialogue’s ministerial meeting was held for the first time in the capital of Tajikistan and was the first dialogue-related meeting for the current foreign ministers of Japan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan.

The idea of a “Central Asia + Japan” dialogue was first introduced in August 2004 by then-Foreign Minister of Japan Yoriko Kawaguchi. During her visit to Central Asia, Kawaguchi identified the dialogue as a new dimension and an option for multilateral cooperation between Japan and Central Asia. According to Kawaguchi herself, the first meeting was possible due to the efforts of the now interim President of Kazakhstan Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, who in 2004 was the country’s foreign minister.

Today, the dialogue has developed its own structural elements that allow participants to discuss a broad and very rich agenda of mutually beneficial issues at the level of foreign ministers, senior officials, as well as representatives of business and academia. An early idea to hold summits between the leaders of Central Asia and Japan, however, has never been implemented.

Despite the fact that dialogue is celebrating its 15th anniversary this year, the foreign ministers of all five countries of Central Asia and Japan were able to meet in full only in 2014 during the fifth ministerial meeting. Accordingly, it can be argued that the dialogue de facto entered into a fully functioning phase only five years ago.

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The main agenda of the seventh ministerial meeting was devoted to issues of trade, transport, investment, tourism, and regional security, which are at the top of the agenda of the Central Asia republics and the dialogue.

Following the meeting, the parties approved a joint statement and the second Action Plan for regional cooperation, which, in fact, summarizes previously implemented, ongoing, and promising activities in the fields of tourism, agriculture, transport, and logistics.

It should be noted that not all of the projects are of a “regional nature,” but in one way or another, they are aimed at further expansion of close collaboration with Japan. At the same time, the new Action Plan is significantly different from the previous comprehensive Action Plan that was adopted in 2006. The new document is more like an addition to the road maps in the fields of agriculture and transport and logistics that were previously adopted in the framework of the dialogue.

However, the document should be viewed from a greater angle. In 2014, the concept of the Global Food Value Chain Strategy was formed in Japan. The goal of the program is to develop and improve the competitiveness of the Japanese food industry, and one of the important areas for the strategy is Russia and the countries of Central Asia.

As for transportation and logistics, Japan has participated in the development of transport communications in Central Asia for more than 20 years, which, in turn, corresponds to the interests of Tokyo in the development of full-fledged intraregional cooperation. In May 2017, in Turkmenistan, then-Foreign Minister of Japan Fumio Kishida promised to allocate about 24 billion yen (about $216 million) for the implementation of regional transport projects. 

Japan has repeatedly tried to expand the dialogue’s membership, specifically to Afghanistan and South Asia. Tokyo assumes that stability in Central Asia and Afghanistan are inextricably linked together with international security. Current Foreign Minister of Afghanistan Salahuddin Rabbani was also invited to this year’s meeting as a guest to attend one of the sessions devoted to regional security issues. Kabul had previously participated in the dialogue-related meetings only once, in 2006, at the invitation of the Japanese side. 

On the margins of the meeting, there were also bilateral talks between the foreign ministers of Japan and Central Asia, as well as the first meeting of Japanese and Afghan foreign ministers over the past seven years.

During the meeting, representatives of Central Asian welcomed the position of Kono, aimed at supporting the “open, stable, and independent development of Central Asia” and promoting regional and international peace and stability as a “catalyst.”

In this regard, Kono praised the current dynamic development of the Central Asian countries, including the transformation of Uzbekistan’s domestic and foreign policy and the power transition underway in Kazakhstan, as well as increased bilateral cooperation between the countries of the region. According to the statements made, the first visit of the President of Uzbekistan Shavkat Mirziyoyev to Japan is being planned.

As was announced, Japan intends to intensify joint efforts to sign bilateral investment agreements with Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan in order to create a favorable climate for attracting Japanese investment in the region. Today, only Uzbekistan (signed in 2008) and Kazakhstan (signed in 2014) have similar agreements with Japan.

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“A breakthrough has been achieved in resolving many issues that in the past created obstacles to mutual rapprochement and the attainment of common interests in the name of further development and improving the well-being of our peoples,” said Uzbek Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov.

As a result of the meeting, it was decided that the next ministerial meeting will be held in 2020 in Japan. This gives hope that Kono, as foreign minister, intends to impart new dynamism to this format, which, according to many experts, led to the creation of similar structures between Central Asia, the Republic of Korea, the European Union, the Visegrad group, and India.

Almas Dissyukov is currently a Ph.D. Student at the University of Tsukuba. From 2005-2017, he worked at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Kazakhstan, including at the Embassy in Japan.