«Central Asia plus Japan: the fact of the meeting is more important than the results.

Usubaliev E.

The year 2020 brings its adjustments to the meeting frameworks of the Central Asian region — after the C5+1 meeting with the US, China plus Central Asia (a new platform for dialogue), the turn has come to Japan, which, continuing its regular meetings with Central Asian countries, is trying to keep its finger on the ‘pulse of developments in the region’. According to official sources, the reason for the special meeting of the CA plus Japan dialogue is to discuss the current epidemiological situation, cooperation in the fight against coronavirus infection and its consequences, as well as the prospects for further cooperation in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The dialogue between Japan and the countries of the region, which started in 2004, has had little success, although it has produced a number of agreements on agriculture, promotion of economic and democratic development and framework agreements on investment, which have since evolved into various bilateral agreements. 

In total, the CA Plus Japan Dialogue held some 40 meetings and events and adopted 12 outcome documents, including two Action Plans (2006 and 2019) and two roadmaps — in agriculture (2014) and transport and logistics (2017).

From the very beginning of its foreign policy engagement in Central Asia, Japan has emphasised that it sees the region as a whole, as subsequently reflected in the Silk Road Diplomacy Initiative, the Silk Road Diplomacy Action Programme and then the Central Asia plus Japan initiative. The brief evolution of the approaches to the region changed only the names, while the basic principles gradually became more concrete. Thus, the Silk Road Diplomacy by R. Hashimoto in 1998 expressed: 1. trust; 2. mutual benefit; and 3. a long-term perspective. Now, in the dialogue, the parties adhere to the following principles: 1. political dialogue; 2. inter-regional cooperation; 3. business promotion; 4. intellectual dialogue and 5. humanitarian exchanges. 

The positive dynamics of the Dialogue meetings, as well as the expression of more concrete principles in building relations with Central Asian countries, raises a reasonable question: to what extent is Japan independent in its policy in Central Asia, or is there coordination with its main ally, the US?

To begin with, from the beginning of Japan’s foreign policy engagement in the region, it has never played or planned to play an independent role. The only exception was the fact that, after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the change in the bipolar world order, Japan felt it was time to be fair in its efforts and contributions to the economic development of the world. By this was meant regular aid to developing countries in South and Southeast Asia and Africa through Official Development Assistance. Total aid to these countries since 1954 amounted to some US $300 billion. Between 1993 and 2001, Japan hoped to provide these countries with regular aid. Between 1993 and 2001, Japan had hoped to mobilize support for UN reform and the acceptance of Japan as a permanent member of the UN Security Council through approximately $12 billion in aid to Central Asian states. 

With the launch of the US and NATO military campaign in Afghanistan and the subsequent US intentions to consider Afghanistan in relation to Central Asia, Japan’s focus shifted to promoting security issues in the region. But in both cases, Japan has played a supportive role, securing US interests — for example, the upgrading of Manas airport in Kyrgyzstan (from 1996 to 2000), the reconstruction of airports in Uzbekistan, among them KarshiKhanabad, and the establishment of military bases in these countries. 

In fact, Japanese-US relations, since the signing of the security treaty in 1951, had become globally widespread by the late 1990s-wherever the US was present, there was always Japan, which paid part of its expenses. This was the case during Desert Storm (approximately $6 billion, plus transportation and logistics), in Afghanistan ($3 billion), plus financial aid for development of the Afghan economy from 2001 to 2019 (approximately $7 billion), the U.S. military operation and presence in Iraq ($13 billion). 

In addition to these tasks, according to a number of experts, Japan (like South Korea) can perform intelligence functions for the United States. Given the lack of historical negative perception of Japan in Central Asia, Japanese researchers have been very active in ethnic minority communities (Uzbeks and Uyghurs) in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, studying religious extremism and terrorism in detail, arranging meetings with religious leaders, assisting refugees who may have had previous connections with religious extremism and terrorism and much more. They have been particularly active following the events in Andijan, Uzbekistan (2005), Kyrgyzstan (ethnic conflict 2010), the terrorist attack on the Chinese embassy in Bishkek (2016). It is difficult to justify such activity on the basis of mere research interest.

Nevertheless, Japan’s current approach to the region is «consonant» with the common US-European interest in encouraging Central Asian states to integrate and cooperate economically and trade independently, without the involvement of «third powers» such as Russia and the PRC. At least all previous meetings since 2016 have contained such a message.

The Japanese believe that China and Russia dominate the region and impede fair and equitable integration and maximum involvement in global trade and economic relations. Whereas Japan, together with the EU and the US, can promote an independent system of integration ties in Central Asia that may also include Afghanistan and Mongolia.

Overall, it can be said that Japan’s policy has a hidden part due to its strategic engagement with the US, an open part that also promotes the common interests of these countries in the region, and a very small part of its own foreign policy interests that relate to countering the PRC in the region.

And it is important to stress that it is by no means competition with China, but opposition, because Japan’s policy against China contains very pinpoint elements. Japan is exploiting China’s existing ‘pain points’ in the region: anti-Chinese sentiment, Uyghur separatism and extremism and, in some cases, pan-Turkism by creating scientific and cultural ties between Turkic peoples, which in most cases have an anti-Chinese orientation. Of course, Japanese government officials do not openly participate in activities related to Uyghur separatism and their national movement, but members of the Japanese parliament, all kinds of Uyghur-Japanese friendship and cooperation associations, are quite frequent guests at all kinds of forums in Turkey, Europe and Japan itself, among others. Unofficially, Japanese diplomats frequently attend events related to Uyghur cultural days, national self-determination, and all conferences of the World Uyghur Congress.

Japan understands that geographical distance from Central Asia, unresolved security issues and the unpredictability of individual states’ policies in the region cannot attract major Japanese corporations, especially as the Central Asian market is not that attractive to Japanese manufacturers. Moreover, Japan’s capacity is clearly insufficient to openly compete with China. In other words, Japan cannot offer what China offers in the region. Japan’s activities are therefore important in relation to the policies of the US, the EU and South Korea.

As for the involvement of large Japanese businesses in Central Asia, there are more than 70 companies with Japanese capital operating in Kazakhstan, and from 2005 to 2019 Japanese direct investment in the economy of Kazakhstan amounted to $ 5.5 billion. During the visit of the president of Uzbekistan to Japan, the parties agreed on investments amounting to 6.5, billion dollars. Turkmenistan is also a major destination for Japanese investments, mainly in the oil and gas sector. In 2015, during Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to Turkmenistan, contracts worth $18 billion were signed. However, it is still unknown how these projects have been implemented and whether they will be implemented in the future.

Lack of transparency of Japanese investment in developing countries, a traditional problem of Japanese foreign policy that has often been accused of misuse of its funding by countries, particularly in the case of ODA aid.

Given all the factors that are associated with Japan’s policy in the region, the main obstacle to the country’s greater involvement in the region is Japan itself. Despite the recent Dialogue meetings, Central Asia is not and never will be a priority in Japan’s foreign policy. Its foreign policy is primarily focused on the Asia-Pacific region, Russia, South and Southeast Asia and the Middle East, and only afterwards are its interests in Central Asia.

As long ago as 1996, Japan’s high-ranking diplomats cited security concerns as a major obstacle to developing a more active presence in Central Asia. In this regard, security guarantees in the region and, more specifically, state guarantees for Japanese investments are factors that are extremely important to Japanese business. On the whole, there are no other obstacles for Japan to do so in Central Asia.

Regarding the outcome of the extraordinary meeting, we can note that according to official data, the parties discussed the possibility of developing and adopting the concept of partnership between Central Asia and Japan in the field of security, development of a new platform for economic partnership, preparation and discussion of the road map on cooperation of the participating countries in the field of high technology, as well as preparing the program of cooperation between the participating countries in the socio-cultural sphere.

All in all, the outcome is quite substantive — Japan is likely to gradually engage in a political dialogue based on mutual partnerships in Central Asia, with the aim of gradually institutionalising such forms of relations in the region. This in turn may cause concern in China, which has always been sensitive to the changing atmosphere in Central Asia and cannot allow its political as well as economic interests to be threatened.

Otherwise, a realistic understanding should be made of Japan’s capabilities — on its own Japan will not be able to initiate processes in Central Asia that will lead to radical changes in the region. However, together with the US, the EU and South Korea, such changes are possible.

Esen Usubaliev, Ph.D., Director.

August 2020.

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