Japan was not the first country to realize the strategic importance of Central Asia. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, it took Tokyo three years to open embassies in the region. Several more years passed before Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto inaugurated a new “Silk Road” diplomacy.
Today, however, Japan has engaged the five countries of Central Asia in a series of economic, political, and security initiatives. Former Japanese ambassador to Uzbekistan Akio Kawato, speaking at a seminar sponsored by the Sasakawa Peace Foundation, argued that Tokyo can play a useful balancing role in the region. To demonstrate that they are too dependent on neither Washington nor Moscow, the countries of Central Asia have turned to Tokyo. “Our influence is not so small,” Kawato said, “and our international status is not so low.”
Japan’s focus on the region received an upgrade in 2004 when Japanese Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi visited all the countries except Turkmenistan. Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi followed up in 2006 with visits to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.
“Koizumi’s visit was greeted with a certain degree of skepticism, if not outright opposition, in some quarters outside of Central Asia,” remarked C. Frederick Starr, chairman of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, the event’s co-sponsor. “It struck me at the time that this was an inappropriate reaction. There has been no country that has been more generous in providing humanitarian assistance to Central Asia. More recently, Japan has organized a consultative group involving all the countries of the region called Japan Plus Central Asia.”
“We are living at a time when almost everyone seems to be interested in Central Asia,” concurred Evan Feigenbaum, deputy assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian affairs. Japan, he continued, has a full complement of interests in the region: strategic, political, commercial, financial, and humanitarian.
Japan’s economic assistance to the region falls into two categories: roughly $2 billion in long-term loans and $600 million in grants. With this assistance, Akio Kawato noted, Japan has helped build 60 vocational schools in Uzbekistan, modernized railways and airports, and constructed roads and optical fiber lines.
The funds from Japan to Central Asia do not flow rapidly, however. “When I was ambassador in Uzbekistan,” Kawato recalled, “I worked hard to realize a project to construct a railway. But it took two years before we could sign the agreement. Thre were four or five delegations and missions for research into feasibility. The Uzbek government was forced to provide information on how many passengers the railroad would handle 20 years later, how many goods would pass on the line 30 years later.”
Kawato attributed these delays to the criticisms of Japan’s Official Development Assistance (ODA) for wasting money. “The majority of Japanese non-profit organizations want to get as much ODA as possible,” he maintained, “so they criticize the official use in order to get more ODA for themselves.”
Japanese businesses are also slowly becoming involved in the region. There is some limited Japanese investment in Kazakh oil fields, but “the transportation cost is very large and Japanese companies complain that they don’t see much transparency on the Kazakh side.”
The chief growth area appears to be uranium from Kazakhstan. However, Kawato noted, the uranium needs to be processed and enriched before being imported to Japan. “Usually this processing is done in Russia,” he continued. “That is why we are going to conclude a cooperation agreement in the nuclear field with Russia by the end of the year.”
Kawato identified several key principles guiding Japan’s relations with Central Asia. It is characterized by “open coordination,” which he contrasted with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, “a rather closed organization.” Japan respects the diversity of the region, the differences among the five countries.
And Japan supports human rights and democratization. “We strongly criticized the vested interests that hamper reforms in Central Asia,” he noted. “The countries in Central Asia are rooted in thousands of years of tradition. But it is important to distinguish between what is rooted in tradition and what is a vested interest handed down from the past.”
At the same, Kawato urged caution on the human rights issue. “If you get too hasty in achieving human rights in Central Asian countries it might work against your political interest,” he suggested. “The people in Central Asia hve become accustomed to authoritarian practices over hundreds of years. If you’re not authoritarian enough, you will be taken as a weak leader and you won’t be respected. You cannot easily change the national mentality.”
Inter Press Service, May 2, 2007