Foreign Minister Taro Kono was in Central Asia last weekend, meeting with his regional counterparts to discuss economic cooperation and security. While that region usually gets little attention — except when things go wrong or when foreign media highlight its quirks — it has assumed growing importance in geopolitics. Its abundant natural resources, its large Muslim population and its geographic location at the crossroads of Asia, the Middle East and Europe make it an increasingly important geopolitical consideration. Japan should use its long, underappreciated history of engagement with Central Asia to promote stability in this vital area.

During the 19th century, Central Asia was the locus of "the Great Game," a geopolitical contest between the British and Russian empires that became the template for future great power rivalries. The region was incorporated into the Soviet Union and largely ignored during the Cold War; dissolution of that empire and the emergence of a handful of independent states with untested governments created opportunities for engagement, but most attention was focused elsewhere. The terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 — the planning, logistical and financial support for which originated in that part of the world — made clear that Central Asia could no longer be ignored.

Russia and China led the institutional forays into the region with the creation in 2001 of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a grouping that originally included those two countries, along with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. (It has since added India and Pakistan, while Afghanistan, Iran, Turkmenistan and some other governments are affiliated.) Its primary focus has been law enforcement and military cooperation — combating "the three isms" of separatism, terrorism and extremism — but it has recently expanded its agenda with economic development and cultural cooperation.