Acentury ago, Russia and Britain contested for influence in Central Asia in a competition known as the Great Game. One hundred years later, Central Asia remains a vitally important region, and the governments fighting for influence have increased, and now include Japan.
Last week, Mr. Junichiro Koizumi made the first visit by a Japanese prime minister to Central Asia. His immediate aim was to secure Japanese access to the region’s ample energy resources, but he also hopes to extend Tokyo’s influence in a troubled area and balance the inroads made by China and Russia.
While Mr. Koizumi’s visit was unprecedented, it was not the first Japanese overture toward the region. Immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Tokyo reached out to the region with foreign aid and technical assistance, providing 280 billion yen by 2004, even as it maintained a low profile. Two years ago, then Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi kicked off the “Central Asia plus Japan dialogue” on economic and security ties.
In June, Foreign Minister Taro Aso laid out a bolder agenda. Speaking to the Japan National Press Club, Mr. Aso explained that “a new atmosphere is emerging, in which it is simply impossible to ignore Japan when you discuss Central Asia.”
The second meeting of the “Central Asia plus Japan dialogue” convened days later to produce an Action Plan that focused on fighting terrorism and the spread of narcotics, clearing antipersonnel mines, alleviating poverty and promoting medical care and environmental protection, as well as developing trade and energy resources, cultural exchanges and intellectual dialogues.
This provided the diplomatic foundation for Mr. Koizumi’s visit, which took him to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. At his first stop, he signed an agreement with Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev on the peaceful use of nuclear energy. Japan is eager to help develop Kazakhstan’s uranium reserves, the second-largest in the world, to fuel its own nuclear power industry. Kazakhstan wants to increase uranium exports — to supply 25 percent of the Japanese demand within a few years — and sees this as a quick way to boost ties with Japan. Japanese investment in the country has already reached $1 billion, and annual trade is $700 million a year and has increased 21 percent in the first six months of 2006.
In Uzbekistan, Mr. Koizumi did not sign any agreements — although the Japan Bank for International Cooperation announced that it signed a memorandum on cooperation for uranium development — focusing instead on reopening dialogue with the government of President Islam Karimov. Uzbekistan’s ties with the West have been strained since May 2005, when government troops shot at demonstrators. Some observers say hundreds of people were killed.
Mr. Koizumi called on Mr. Karimov to improve human rights practices, reportedly saying “friendly relations between Uzbekistan and Japan will lead to better relations between Uzbekistan and the United States and the EU.”
Notably, Mr. Koizumi’s public comments made no reference to the troubles in 2005; instead he called on both countries to do more to improve bilateral ties.
This low-key approach is typical of Japanese diplomacy, but it also reflects a calculated decision to avoid confrontation with an autocratic regime that is simultaneously being courted by Russia and China. These countries see the region as lying within their natural spheres of influence.
Moscow and Beijing have tried to institutionalize that influence through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which includes Russia, China and four other Central Asia republics — Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
While Russia and China are inclined to turn a blind eye to political abuses that are all too commonplace in Central Asia, both governments are very capable of meddling in their neighbors’ internal affairs. With Russia eager to increase its control over energy resources to strengthen its position in the global energy market, Japan is prompted to seize its own opportunity.
Given the rising strategic significance of Central Asia — due to its vast energy resources, its location at the crossroads of Europe, Asia and the Middle East, and the presence of radical Islamists throughout the area — Japan should be deeply involved in the region’s affairs, promoting development and positive political evolution.
There are neither easy answers to the problems of the region nor quick fixes. Quiet sustained engagement is vital. Mr. Koizumi’s trip is an important contribution to this process.
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