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.
Japan has a long history of engagement with Central Asia, but the diplomacy has been quiet and low in profile. In the aftermath of the Cold War, Tokyo quickly became the top provider of bilateral aid and dispatched advisers to help those new governments build capacity, particularly in economic areas. In 2004, Japan launched the “Central Asia plus Japan” dialogue to create a formal framework for engagement. That program had five pillars of policy dialogue: intra-regional cooperation, business promotion, intellectual dialogue, and cultural and people-to-people exchanges. The effort continues: The 13th Senior Officials Meeting was held last November, with a broad cross section of Japanese officials attending.
Economic relations have been a focus of Japanese policymakers. The region is home to approximately 85 million people and has a collective GDP that exceeds $285 billion. The potential for growth is real: Total foreign investment in the region in 2015 was just $17.1 billion, an amount equal to funds invested in Turkey. In 2014 Japan and Turkmenistan signed a $1.7 billion deal to build a gas-to-liquids plant. The following year, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited Central Asian countries and concluded several agreements on energy and infrastructure projects worth approximately $45 billion.
Economic development dominated discussions during Kono’s recent visit to the region, the seventh in the series of Foreign Ministers Meetings. During those talks, he promoted Japan’s high-quality infrastructure. At the conclusion of the session with regional counterparts, they released a joint statement that noted the importance of investment “based on international standards.”
That was a subtle dig at China’s “Belt and Road” initiative (BRI), discussion of which has been increasingly colored by concern that Beijing’s money is a dangerous gift, imposing unreasonable debt burdens on recipients. Japan is also eager to tap the region’s energy resources as a way of reducing its reliance on imports from the Middle East and Persian Gulf regions. Some argue that the region’s rare metal deposits are even more important.
The Japanese presence is welcomed by regional governments because it gives them a card to play as they work to maintain independence from the two countries vying for regional dominance, China and Russia. Russia views Central Asia as part of its near-abroad, a legacy of the Soviet empire and a natural part of its sphere of influence. China seeks to expand its own power in the area, concerned primarily about the spread of Islamic extremism from the area into its own western provinces. It also hungrily eyes those energy and mineral resources.
Both Moscow and Beijing appreciate the geographical position of the region, straddling trade routes, and its significance for connectivity both north-south and east-west. The BRI is an attempt to dominate those connections and corridors. Tokyo has been working with India to develop an alternative infrastructure framework for the region. Central Asia governments welcome those efforts and Japan should continue to invest time and money, building deeper, richer and more resilient partnerships.