National / Politics

Abe treads in China's footprints in Central Asia, picks up human rights baggage

by Jesse Johnson and Alastair Wanklyn

Staff Writers

Prime Minster Shinzo Abe’s trip to Mongolia and Central Asia — in which he became the first Japanese leader ever to visit Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan — looks to bring in a raft of investment deals for Tokyo. But the whirlwind tour likely had other motivations, too, and raises questions about Abe’s willingness to do business with strongmen with dubious human rights records.

In a speech Tuesday in Astana, Abe said Japan saw huge economic potential in infrastructure and other projects in the region.

“The Japanese government will push for private investment and will support infrastructure building as well as human resource development. By doing so, business opportunities surpassing ¥3 trillion will be created,” Abe said.

Over the course of the trip, Abe doled out ¥900 million in grants to Tajikistan, ¥12.7 billion in official development aid to Uzbekistan and ¥13 billion in loans to Kyrgyzstan. He also agreed to cooperate on gas projects totaling at least ¥2.2 trillion in Turkmenistan, while offering Japan’s expertise in bringing nuclear power to Kazakhstan.

While some analysts said the foray into Central Asia is an attempt by Japan to counter China’s rising influence there, others said Tokyo is not so naive.

“Japanese investment and involvement is certainly not going to have much impact on China’s large footprint in Central Asia, but I think that is well understood by all sides,” said Laurent Ruseckas, a Prague-based senior adviser with IHS Energy.

Beijing got off to an early start in the region with initiatives such as its Silk Road Economic Belt development plan and Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.

Still, it is not too late for Tokyo to build its presence, said Theresa Fallon, a senior associate with the European Institute for Asian Studies in Brussels.

“Japan may perhaps be able to piggyback on new rail transport and other infrastructure projects in the region,” Fallon said, dubbing the visit “Abe’s grand ‘stan’ slam.”

The Central Asian governments — many struggling with a plunge in commodity prices and the recession battering Russia, their former Soviet master and a key trading partner — appeared to welcome the prospect of increased Japanese interest in the region.

“It is difficult to compete with China’s deep-pocketed promises, but there are areas where Japan has significant expertise and can compete, for example in nuclear power plant projects,” Fallon said.

Indeed, the region is seen by Abe as a potential new market for the export of infrastructure projects, a key plank of his “Abenomics” economic policy mix. In a January 2014 speech, Abe vowed to triple infrastructure sales to ¥30 trillion by 2020.

But the tranche of business deals Abe boasted of could also saddle Japan with political baggage just as it ramps up its campaign for a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council. Earlier this month, Japan was elected to one of the five nonpermanent seats on the council for the 11th time — more than any other nonpermanent member.

In a statement after bilateral talks in Tashkent on Sunday, the Uzbek government said it “supports Japan’s candidacy” as a permanent member of the body, as Kyrgyzstan President Almazbek Atambayev had done in Bishkek earlier.

Meanwhile, in a key speech in the Kazakh capital on the final day of his trip, any mention of human rights concerns was conspicuously missing, leaving activists aghast at what one called a “colossal missed opportunity.”

Instead, Abe focused on touting lofty infrastructure goals and the promise of a more proactive long-term game in the region than rivals China and Russia.

On the eve of his trip, lobby group Human Rights Watch urged Abe to raise the issue of rights, calling the trip an excellent time to push for reforms.

Matters Abe should raise with his hosts, it said, included politically motivated prosecutions and the imprisonment of human rights and civic activists; renewed restrictions on nongovernmental groups and on freedom of the media, assembly, and association; and impunity for torture.

“That Abe appears not to have raised human rights concerns at all during his Central Asia tour does indeed point to a colossal missed opportunity — and a huge let-down given the appalling state of human rights throughout the region, its many victims of human rights abuse, and the courageous human rights defenders and other activists who risk so much to hold their governments accountable,” said Veronika Szente Goldston, HRW’s Europe and Central Asia advocacy director.

She said business interests and promoting human rights were not mutually exclusive goals, but to ignore the latter would call into question Abe’s 2013 pledge to place human rights at the center of foreign policy.

“Bottom line is: It should be possible to do both at the same time,” Szente Goldston said.

J. Berkshire Miller, an East Asia fellow at the EastWest Institute in New York, said Tokyo could argue that it was trying to balance its desire for investment with a decades-long commitment to sustainable development and governance capacity-building in the region.

“Japan definitely does not want to highlight these elements of its engagement with Central Asian governments,” Miller said.

And while Tokyo has an interest in promoting its Security Council bid, Miller said reforming the body was a “peripheral or secondary issue” in regards to Central Asian countries.

“There are no (nonpermanent) UNSC members from the region currently and — while helpful — the support of Central Asian countries is simply gravy to the support that Abe has been trying to lobby for in other areas,” he added, citing Japan’s contact with Sri Lanka as an example.

Still, Szente Goldston said, if this support came at the cost of keeping quiet on rights concerns, it “defies the whole logic” of Japan’s aspiration for security council membership — a position that is “supposed to be based on principled leadership in upholding and promoting the fundamental values that underpin the United Nations.”

Ultimately, though, anyone doing business in these countries has to deal with authoritarian leaders, said Ellen L. Frost, a senior adviser at the East-West Center in Honolulu.

“The question is what Japanese government officials say behind the scenes,” Frost said. “In general, the Japanese government’s support for human rights, which is real, is expressed privately.”

And even if the jury is out on the benefits for Japan from Abe’s six-nation tour, Fallon of EIAS noted that it came amid a flurry of visits by leaders of foreign governments to Central Asia.

“These high-level diplomatic visits signal that there is growing interest in this geopolitically significant region and that perhaps not all silk roads will inevitably lead to Beijing,” Fallon said.