During the past decade, the Central Asian states have been enjoying a growing interest from the regional powers. Being among the major investors and aid partners of the region, Japan also plays an active role in the current geopolitical rivalry and intensifies its political and economic ties with the Central Asian governments. Therefore, the latest “Central Asia plus Japan” dialogue (CAJD) meeting that marked the 15th anniversary of its establishment and gathered the ministers of foreign affairs of Japan and the Central Asian states for the seventh time, is of considerable interest for the wider audience.
The seventh CAJD foreign ministers’ meeting that took place in Dushanbe on May 18, 2019 had three separate panels, where the parties discussed practical cooperation in the fields of tourism, trade, investment and development, regional security, and regional cooperation. Notably, the panel on regional security was held with the participation of Foreign Minister of Afghanistan Salahuddin Rabbani, who was invited as a guest, whereas two other panels discussed the development of efficient measures of cooperation that will help attract Japanese companies to the economic, commerce and tourism sectors of the Central Asian states. In addition, Japan put special emphasis on the trendy potential of the region – connectivity. Despite Japan’s support to the transport infrastructure of the Central Asian states at the bilateral level and through international organizations, including the Asian Development Bank and the World Bank, over the past two decades, Japanese authorities specified their interest in developing the full capacity of intraregional connectivity. As a result of the CAJD meeting, the joint statement and an action plan were adopted that outline measures to further enhance intra-regional cooperation [News.tj].
It should be reminded that the CADJ was introduced in August 2004 by then Foreign Minister of Japan Yoriko Kawaguchi during her visit to Central Asia as the main instrument of Japan’s engagement with the Central Asian region, which it still is. A meeting at the level of foreign ministers is the highest level event within the CAJD, and, even though the dialogue does not have a certain schedule, the past meetings show a biannual frequency of gatherings. In addition, there are senior officials’ meetings that, apart from discussing current issues, are instrumental for the preparation of the foreign ministers’ meetings and their “follow-ups” [Dissyukov, 2019a]. On November 26, 2018, the 13th CAJD senior officials’ meeting was held in Tokyo, during which the parties negotiated the organization of this year’s foreign ministers’ meeting. Along with these mechanisms, there are platforms such as the “Tokyo Intellectual Dialogue” and the “Economic Forum” that are also organized within the CAJD to strengthen the existing ties between Japan and Central Asia.
Meanwhile, Japan’s first strategy on Central Asia was presented in 1997 by Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto, who ushered the new “Silk Road” diplomacy concept of Japan that had a three-layered structure: political dialogue, economic cooperation, and cooperation in nuclear nonproliferation and maintaining peace. This concept was welcomed by the Central Asian states and helped Japan to develop systematic support and, more importantly, was an institutionalized approach in dealing with the region. In particular, the Japanese government secured its presence in Central Asia through its two initiatives. The first direction was the Official Development Assistance (ODA) for the region that provided grants, technical cooperation, low-interest and interest-free loans and other forms of financial assistance to the region. ODA, in addition to financial assistance, ensured the supply of technological innovations to the region. The second channel of cooperation was implemented through the active involvement of Japanese companies in the region. Within these activities, Japan secured a certain portion of energy resources by developing energy-related projects in the region. Thus, the “Silk Road” diplomacy encouraged the Japanese presence in Central Asia from the 2000s [Dadabayev, 2012]. Later on, Japan’s interest in the region was demonstrated during the historic October 2015 visit of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to all five Central Asian states (the first Japanese leader to do so) that was an evidence of Abe’s enthusiasm about the region. In 2006, Abe’s administration also developed its approach towards Central Asia in its foreign policy concept “The Arc of Freedom and Prosperity: Japan’s Expanding Diplomatic Horizons”. In the concept, the Central Asian region was included together with the ASEAN countries, South Asia, the Middle East, the Black Sea region, Central and East Europe as part of the Eurasian region, with which Japan would cooperate based on such universal values as freedom, democracy, the rule of law, fundamental human rights, and the market economy [Rakhimov, 2014].
Simultaneously, Japan has been deepening its contacts with the Central Asian states bilaterally. For instance, even during the latest CAJD meeting, the Japanese foreign minister held separate negotiations with each of his Central Asian counterparts. It is noteworthy that Tokyo announced its intention to sign bilateral investment agreements with Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan that will create more favorable conditions for Japanese investors. Such agreements are already in place with Uzbekistan (signed in 2008) and Kazakhstan (signed in 2014) [Dissyukov, 2019b]. In addition, Uzbekistan announced about the forthcoming first visit of President Mirziyoyev to Japan, while President of Tajikistan Emomali Rahmon was the latest (October 2018) Central Asian leader to pay a visit to Tokyo.
In practice, the implications of Japan’s multilateral and bilateral instruments are well tracked in the region. For instance, Uzbekistan’s chemical industry procures Japan’s technologies; in Kyrgyzstan, three kindergartens were opened with Japan’s grant assistance funding in March 2019 [Cheriegate, 2019]; in Turkmenistan, the allocation of about 24 billion yen (about $216 million) for the implementation of regional transportation projects was announced in 2017 [Dissyukov, 2019b]. During Abe’s 2015 visit, a number of important investment agreements were signed with Uzbekistan, and in Kyrgyzstan the Japanese side agreed to provide financial aid to refurbish the equipment of the Manas International Airport, while offering Kazakhstan to build a nuclear power plant [Japan Today, 2015].
In conclusion, it should be emphasized that whether or not the ongoing geopolitical changes in Eurasia caused the rivalry for the influence in Central Asia, Japan has always been engaging to a certain extent with the regional states. Probably, the Japanese strategy seems modest compared to other countries’ massive and well-presented initiatives. However, Japan has been developing its own path of engagement with the region that is based on providing assistance and technological investment, and gaining in return benefits from the rich energy potential of Central Asia. Consequently, it could be summarized that the past CAJD meeting, as well as the agreements achieved at the event, will contribute to Japan’s further involvement in the region, while the Central Asian states welcome Japanese initiatives that are well-known for their high quality and sustainability.
Cheriegate, Kristen (2019). Tokyo Continues to Successfully Engage Central Asia. Retrieved from http://www.caspianpolicy.org/tokyo-continues-to-successfully-engage-central-asiawhether-it-is-the-japanese-spring-festival-celebration-in-kazakhstan-japanese-modern-technologies-being-sold-to-uzbekistans-chemical-indust/. Accessed on 10.06.2019.
Dadabayev, Timur (2012). The Evolution of the Japanese Diplomacy towards Central Asia since the Collapse of the Soviet Union. OSCE Yearbook 2011, Vol. 17, Baden-Baden: Nomos, 2012, pp. 441-458.
Dissyukov, Almas (2019a). “Central Asia Plus Japan” Dialogue: From Idea to Implementation. Journal of International and Advanced Japanese Studies, Vol. 11, pp. 1-21.
Dissyukov, Almas (2019b). Central Asia and Japan: 15 Years of Multilateral Cooperation. Retrieved from https://thediplomat.com/2019/05/central-asia-and-japan-15-years-of-multilateral-cooperation/. Accessed on 10.06.2019.
Japan Today (2015). Abe’s Central Asian diplomacy. Retrieved from https://japantoday.com/category/features/opinions/abes-central-asian-diplomacy. Accessed on 10.06.2019.
News.tj (2019). Central Asian, Japanese foreign ministers discuss ways to promote Central Asia as tourist destination. Retrieved from https://news.tj/en/news/tajikistan/politics/20190520/central-asian-japanese-foreign-ministers-discuss-ways-to-promote-central-asia-as-tourist-destination. Accessed on 10.06.2019.
Rakhimov, Mirzokhid (2014). Central Asia and Japan: Bilateral and Multilateral Relations. Journal of Eurasian Studies, Vol. 5, pp. 77-87.
Note: The views expressed in this blog are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the Institute’s editorial policy.
Dr.Albina Muratbekova is a research fellow of the Eurasian Research Institute at H.A.Yassawi Kazakh Turkish International University. Albina holds a PhD degree in Oriental Studies from Al Farabi Kazakh National University. She was a Fellow of the EUCACIS PhD support programme, Fudan Fellow 2017, a visiting student of the Cambridge Central Asia Forum at the University of Cambridge along with being an exchange student at Lanzhou University. Previously, she had worked at the international departments of Narxoz and AlmaU universities on the implementation of the internationalization strategy of th