Home / Asia and Pacific / Welcome on board the Almaty-Tokyo Express: Japan’s pragmatic diplomacy in Central Asia

Welcome on board the Almaty-Tokyo Express: Japan’s pragmatic diplomacy in Central Asia

24 May, 2021

By Luke Austin – Research Assistant

Central Asia is a somewhat unpredictable region, with increased organised crime and Islamic terrorism in the 1990s leading to the formation of a “crime-terror nexus”. Recent studies of the nature of power itself in Central Asia, reaching beyond the limitations of authoritarianism and Great Power politics, have revealed the truly complex and pervasive nature of power in the region. Owing to Central Asia’s geographical proximity and historical links to both Russia and China, it is understandable that the activities of both powers in this region receive the most attention. There is, however, one other power whose influence and activities in the region are often left out of the equation: Japan.

Central Asia has always occupied and will undoubtedly continue to occupy a special place in Russian foreign policy. Its conquest by the Russian Empire in the nineteenth century set the stage for Russian dominance. In more recent times, Russia’s influence within the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) is outlined in its most recent Foreign Policy Concept, and much of Russia’s military presence in Central Asia is enacted through this organisation. Russia also has experience of conflict resolution in the region, the most notable example being the Tajik civil war of 1992-97. Russia is still widely considered to be Central Asia’s key security partner. The importance of Central Asia to Russia is also recognised in Russian IR discourse, with the Central Asian states, Belarus, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Ukraine and Moldova constituting the Malaya Yevraziya (“Small Eurasia”) subsystem, within which Russia constitutes the “core-country”.

It was through Central Asia that the Venetian explorers Niccolo and Maffeo Polo made their journey to Beijing in the late thirteenth century. Given the geographical location of Central Asia and the relative decline of Russia, China’s Central Asia project was bound to happen. China’s increased presence in Central Asia is perhaps a symbol of the post-Cold War world order. Prominent Chinese-led structures active in Central Asia, including the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AAIB), the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), and the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) are causing quite a commotion. The so-called “debt-trap diplomacy”, whereby China gains strategic concessions after having burdened economic partners with unpayable loans, has already appeared in Uzbekistan despite Uzbekistan’s intentions to cease the supply of natural gas to foreign markets by roughly 2025. China’s mistreatment of the Muslim population in Xinjiang has also caused tensions with Kazakhstan.

That is not to mention some of the smaller scale yet significant actors in Central Asia. South Korea has enjoyed considerable success in energy cooperation with Kazakhstan in particular, given beneficial factors such as the presence of the Koryo-Saram ethnic Korean community in the region. Largely guided by a desire to construct new transport links and address Turkey’s energy needs, Turkish foreign policy has also recently taken something of a Eurasianist turn towards Central Asia and Azerbaijan. Turkish officials have also made references to common ethnic Turkic ties between Turkey and Central Asia. Member-states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) such as Saudi Arabia have also made their presence known in Central Asia, particularly in terms of energy cooperation with Turkmenistan.

The key areas of the “Silk Road” or “Eurasian” policy concept devised by Japan in 1997 are as follows: “political dialogue, economic cooperation and cooperation in nuclear non-proliferation, democratization and maintaining stability”. Accordingly, allocations of Japanese ODA (official development assistance) to Central Asia increased tenfold within the space of a decade between 1993 and 2003. The Central Asia plus Japan dialogue has now been in place for seventeen years, forming a main cornerstone of Japan’s “Silk Road Diplomacy”. August 2020 saw the most recent multilateral gathering, the Foreign Ministers’ Special Video Conference of the “Central Asia plus Japan” Dialogue. Japanese Minister of Foreign Affairs Toshimitsu Motegi met with representatives from each of the five Central Asian states. During this meeting, Motegi emphasised the importance of solidarity in the “open, stable and self-sustained” development of the region, before describing Japan’s role in this process as that of a “catalyst”. This is, perhaps, a clear yet subtle hint at the true scale and magnitude of Japan’s Central Asia policy.

Amidst former Prime Minister of Japan Shinzō Abe’s landmark tour across Central Asia in October 2015, Japanese-Central Asian multilateral cooperation was described as a “marriage of convenience”: an exchange for plentiful Central Asian resources ranging from natural gas to uranium and rare metals for Japanese expertise in social infrastructure. This seems logical: exchange between a notoriously natural resource-poor power rich in social infrastructure and a region rich in natural resources yet lacking in social infrastructure. Take Uzbekistan as an individual example: it is rich in uranium, which Japan can use in its own nuclear power plants, thereby promoting bilateral cooperation in natural resource exploration. In terms of energy resource management, Japan outperforms Russia in providing Uzbekistan with “newer and more sustainable technologies”. Furthermore, Japan has extensive expertise with regards to nuclear power plant security, rooted in both positive and negative experiences: the positive experiences being reflected in Japan’s successful management of a large number of plants, while the negative experiences are rooted in nuclear incidents such as the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster.

It is not only material factors which drive Japan’s Silk Road diplomacy. It is impossible to ignore the normative foundations of Japan’s Central Asian diplomacy: a Silk Road narrative based on “values of common historical heritage”. Then, there is Japan’s “value-oriented” diplomacy (kachi no gaikō), a concept based on freedom, democracy, market economies and the rule of law that was promoted with particular enthusiasm by the wily political veteran Tarō Asō. Understandably, there are those who accuse Tokyo of cynically prioritising geopolitical and economic interests over the promotion of human rights and democracy. It must be remembered, however, that promotion of human rights and democracy in certain regions is something easier said than done. With examples of the failures of forced democratisation such as Iraq, it is clear that handling the topic of democratisation in as prudent a manner as possible is of paramount importance. One explanation given for Abe’s unprecedented level of support for a liberal international order is tied not to his support for liberal values themselves, but directly to his nationalistic leanings: Japan’s greatness depends on its cooperation with other states.

A notable shift towards a pragmatic realist approach in Abe’s foreign policy from 2015 has also been identified and attributed to both domestic and international structures, namely the prioritisation of economic revitalisation over security policy by the Japanese public and North Korea’s increasingly aggressive behaviour, coupled with a China growing ever more militarily and economically powerful. The nationalistic tendencies of current Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga have been revealed once more following a recent spat with both China and South Korea, which came as a result of Suga sending a ritual masakaki tree as an offering to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, which is still regarded as a symbol of Japan’s wartime aggression. Both the Chinese and South Korean ministries of foreign affairs criticised Suga’s actions. As a member of the openly right-wing Nippon Kaigi lobby and with a visible hawkish streak, Suga is more than likely motivated by similar factors that motivated Abe. Abandoning the pursuit of a liberal international order could cost Suga dearly.

With Suga facing strikingly low approval ratings and an unpredictable future, it remains to be seen whether Japan’s Central Asia policy will become an area of focus. With the long-awaited Summer Olympic Games due to take place in Tokyo within a matter of months and a fourth wave of coronavirus infections across the country, Suga is likelier to be preoccupied with things on the domestic front. However, this does not mean that Central Asia will be put on the backburner by any of Japan’s wide array of influential foreign policy actors, both formal and informal.

Japan’s Central Asia policy seems to be dominated by government agencies, leaving little room for non-state actors. There are a host of opportunities here for private Japanese actors, ranging from leather processing in Uzbekistan to the development of infrastructure in Tajikistan. After all, it is FDI (foreign direct investment) which can “provide financial stability, promote economic development and enhance the well-being of societies”. An increased level of involvement of Japanese NGOs in Central Asia would also, somewhat ironically, complement Japan’s support for the liberal world order of which Abe was so fond: if not necessarily through the spread of liberal values and democratisation, then through the fostering of economic cooperation and interdependence for the time being. In any case, this type of approach would most likely prove to be more popular amongst the Central Asian countries due to their respective histories as post-Soviet republics: all one must do is look at the painful experiences endured by their former rulers in the north during the turbulent Yeltsin era of the 1990s to understand how reform can be a dangerous process, if not carried out correctly. As liberal values change with time, it is ever more important for Japan to take an “…incrementalist and pluralistic approach”. This would perhaps be more compatible with the post-neoliberal gradualism observed in Central Asia following the Soviet collapse, and consistently lead on from Tokyo’s evident promotion of Central Asian states’ involvement in international financial institutions.

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare a major human security challenge in Central Asia, punctuated by poverty, corruption and the stalling of already-strained public health systems. With the pandemic being referred to by one Russian expert as a “stress test” for post-Soviet states, Japan could extend its vaccine diplomacy to Central Asia in order to further consolidate its good-standing in the region. Japan’s vaccine diplomacy seems to be yielding good results in Southeast Asia, with medical equipment and other supplies provided to five Mekong River states: Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand. The aims of Japan’s Silk Road Diplomacy were not merely to counter Chinese influence in the region, but also to reform Japan’s Russia policy. A Russo-Japanese rapprochement through bilateral cooperation in Central Asia is made all the more unfeasible by the precarious state of bilateral US-Russia relations, with Russian military build-ups near the Ukrainian border in April rattling cages in Ukraine, the European Union (EU) and in the US. What is also concerning is the potential for Sino-Russian rivalry in Central Asia resulting in both powers backing different factions against each other, leading to the possible disintegration of multi-ethnic states.

Assistance for Japan’s Silk Road diplomacy will most likely come from its key partner: the US. American experts have flagged Central Asia as a potential area of focus for Joe Biden’s foreign policy, namely in terms of climate diplomacy and COVID-related diplomacy. Japanese informal policy actors, who include among their ranks influential scholars and academics such as Kitaoka Shin’ichi, play a greater role in the formulation of Japanese foreign policy since the second Abe cabinet, and are known for their pro-US stance. These conditions could help facilitate bilateral cooperation between Washington and Tokyo in COVID-related diplomacy in Central Asia, particularly following Donald Trump’s somewhat underwhelming response to the COVID pandemic in the region: Uzbekistan was the only Central Asian country to receive medical equipment from the US.

Recent developments point to another potential partner who could assist the formulation of a more comprehensive Silk Road diplomacy: the EU. EU-Japan relations have been bolstered over recent years, in both economic and security-related spheres. This has led some to propose greater EU-Japan cooperation in Central Asia, particularly in tackling often inter-related security issues such as inconsistent border control, narcotics trafficking, and terrorism which still threaten regional stability. A memorandum of understanding was also recently signed between the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD). While the EBRD is not an EU institution, it is nevertheless heavily influenced by EU institutions. This influence became apparent during the early stages of the Ukrainian crisis in July 2014, when the EBRD suspended Russian investment projects after a European Council declaration.

The Uyghur issue has also started to attract more and more attention from the Japanese public. Taking a stronger stance against China on this issue could take the form of what might be considered by some in Beijing to be economic and humanitarian encroachment on what has become its strategic backyard with its attempts to fill the void left by Russia. Given this context, increased Japanese activity in Central Asia would convince Japan’s allies that it still strives towards a liberal rules-based world order, regardless of the motives involved. Bilateral US-Japan, multilateral EU-Japan or US-EU-Japan economic cooperation in Central Asia could therefore prove to be a worthwhile venture not just for economic reasons, but for nobler humanitarian and liberal-normative motivations. Nevertheless, the fact remains that a Free and Open Indo-Pacific is no guarantee of a Free and Open Central Asia. The normative power of Japan’s Silk Road diplomacy will outweigh its material gains.

Image: Shinzo Abe during a visit to Turkmenistan in 2015 (Source:平成27年10月23日 トルクメニスタン訪問 | 平成27年 | 総理の一日 | 総理大臣 | 首相官邸ホームページ via 内閣官房内閣広報室 and CC BY 4.0)

About Luke Austin

Luke Austin has recently completed his MA with distinction in Governance and Global Affairs at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO). He wrote his master’s dissertation on the levels of consistency and contradiction between actual policy-making and political discourse in the framework of EU-Russia relations. Luke also holds a BA in Japanese and Russian from the University of Leeds. He has previously interned for the Primakov Institute of World Economy and International Relations (IMEMO) in Moscow.