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Abe’s Central Asian diplomacy

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In a rare move, Japan has been consolidating ties with Central Asia. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited the five Central Asian Republics (Kazakhstan,Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan) on Oct 22-28 as part his efforts to strengthen economic relations with the resource-rich region. Mongolia also strongly matters in Japanese diplomacy and it was included in the itinerary.

Japan is energy-strapped. There lie two big regions on its eastern and western flanks with an abundance of energy and natural resources. They could fulfil Japans’ needs. On the northeastern flank lies Siberia and on the western flank lies China and Central Asia. Unfortunately, Japan’s relations with both these regions are marred by actuate differences and historical rivalry.

Japan is now attempting to rebalance China in Central Asia. This is a geo-strategic competition, hope not rivalry. Japanese policy toward Central Asia has four dimensions: it is tended to diversify Japan’s energy needs instead of depending on the post-Fukushima nuclear reliance, exploring new markets in Central Asia, and giving a befitting response to China’s One Belt One initiative. And finally, it is a Japanese rebalance effort to counterweight China in Central Asia.

The Silk Road also fascinates Japanese too. Japan’s entry into Asia is primarily through China, going deep into historic cities of Central Asia where cultural, art, philosophy and scientific discoveries were unearthed.

Japan has fewer contacts with Central Asia and Tokyo's diplomacy has not produced a tangible outcome. Tokyo pursued its Central Asian diplomacy with less enthusiasm; thus Central Asia is overshadowed by China’s geographical and historical presence.

Japan faces economic challenges in Central Asia. According to the IMF’s Direction of Trade Statistics, Japan’s total bilateral trade with Central Asia was $1.8 billion in 2013. Except with Kazakhstan, Japan has a meager trade relationship with all five Central Asian Republics. Japan has to make inroads to capture manufacturing markets in Central Asia and import the region's natural resources.

Historically, Central Asia has not been the focal point of Japanese policy. Central Asia used to be a Russian dominated area. Now Chinese influence is increasing. Japan built diplomatic ties with Central Asian Republics after they gained independence in the early 1990s.

Japan concentrated on Southeast Asia and removing irritants surrounding U.S.-Japan security paradigms. North Korea and China also pose great challenges to Japan.

In the 1990s, Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto came up with the idea of “Silk Road Diplomacy” to foster closer links with Central Asia. The idea, however, did not go well. Under this “Silk Road Diplomacy,” Japan extended its Official Development Assistance (ODA) to Central Asian Republics and mutual exchanges were made. In 2004, the “Central Asia Plus Japan” forum was launched with fragile interests.

Historically, after Japan gained strength during wars, it championed the cause of Pan Asianism but Japan's military adventures were counterproductive to Pan Asianism. Japan's defeat in World War II changed the scenario. Subsequently, Japan’s “Asia” came to mean Northeast and Southeast Asia. Central Asia did not figure in that perspective. Since the early 1990s, Japan, nevertheless, has been trying to develop its relations with Central Asia independent of U.S. guidance.

It was in 2006 that Prime Minister Juinchiro Koizumi made the first-ever visit by a Japanese prime minister to Central Asia, which was a major breakthrough in Japan’s relations with Central Asia after wars.

Japan sees economic potential worth $25 billion in infrastructure projects in Central Asia. Japanese technology especially in railways could bring a phenomenal change to Central Asia.

Abe pledged $18 billion to Turkmenistan in power plants. He also offered $8.3 billion to develop its natural gas plant, the first-ever visit by a Japanese leader to oil and gas-rich Turkmenistan. The country has the world’s fourth-largest reserve of natural gas. Rare metals, uranium and gold also attract Japanese businessmen to Central Asia. The bilateral trade between Japan and Turkmenistan of just $56 million will get a new jump-start.

Japan has been considering to invest $10 billion in the TAPI (1800 km) project, pumping gas from Turkmenistan into Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. In Uzbekistan, Abe announced $105 million for joint projects, including a contract for Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Mitsubishi Corporation to construct a $1billion fertilizer plant.

Abe also agreed on $8 billion worth of deals for investment in Uzbekistan's energy, transport, mineral resources, auto, telecommunications and chemical industries. Abe offered $107 million in aid to Kyrgyzstan for repairing a major road and procuring equipment at Manas International Airport. About $7.4 million aid assistance was given to Tajikistan. In Kazakhstan, Abe offered to build a nuclear power plant.

Trade has potential to expand in infrastructure and chemicals and big Japanese multinationals such as Sumitomo, JGC, Chiyoda, and Sojitz, and Mitsubishi Corporations are increasing their presence.

Observers see Abe’s trip to Central Asia as a step to counterweight China’s growing influence under the One Belt One Road initiative and funding offered under the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), which Japan has not joined. Through the Asian Development Bank (ADB), Japan has been funding infrastructure projects in Central Asia. This is a new challenge posed to China by Japan by seeking a parallel Silk Road and wooing Central Asian Republics with increased Japanese assistance, trade and investment.

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