The Growing Importance of Japan's Engagement in Central Asia

Posted in Japan | 19-Feb-06 | Author: Christopher Len

Amid talk of the Great Game's revival in Central Asia, Japan's role has received little attention among security analysts despite being present in the region since 1992. By 2004, Japan had given a total of 260 billion yen (over US$2 billion) to support economic and social development to the Central Asian states. Japan's focus on long-term development aid to Central Asia has allowed Tokyo to develop its reputation as a partner to Central Asian republics. This is in contrast to the other contenders in the region whose key motivation is commonly perceived to be the exploitation of the region's vast oil and gas resources.

Japan added a new dimension to its engagement with Central Asia with the formation of the Central Asia Plus Japan initiative in August 2004. While low-key compared to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (S.C.O.), Japan through the Central Asia Plus Japan initiative is likely to play an increasingly significant geopolitical role, not just in Central Asia but also in Eurasia. An important question is how Japan's new regional initiative will impact the S.C.O., which is largely considered the de facto regional organization in Central Asia.

Japan's Entry into Central Asia

The end of the Cold War created new opportunities for Japan to engage with the post-Soviet independent states, in particular Russia. The availability of abundant energy resources from the nearby Russian Far East and the return of the Kurile Islands, referred to by the Japanese as the Northern Territories, were subjects closest to Japan's interests. However, Japan tied the issue of energy investment in the Russian Far East to the return of the disputed islands. This led to frosty ties between Moscow and Tokyo, prompting the latter to focus its attention increasingly toward Central Asia instead.

Central Asia was an attractive option for a number of reasons. Japan was attracted to the region's oil and gas deposits. Aid to Central Asia was also intended to show the Russians that more funds could be forthcoming if they return the disputed islands to Japan. In addition, there were doubts over Russia's uncertain future outlook, the ageing infrastructure and difficulty in penetrating Russia's highly-protected energy industry.

On a secondary level, Japan wanted to steer the new republics toward secular governments as rising Islamic fundamentalism in Central Asia could spillover into China's Xinjiang province, which in turn could destabilize the rest of China. Japanese government officials also romanticized about links between Japan and the people of Central Asia. Japanese Foreign Minister Michio Watanabe reportedly found it difficult to distinguish between Japanese and the locals in Central Asia on his first trip to the region. The Japanese also reminisced about the 60,000 Japanese war prisoners deported to Central Asia by Stalin when the Red Army invaded Manchuria in 1945.

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