Prague, 26 August 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Japanese Foreign Minister Yokiro Kawaguchi is starting her tour of Central Asia with a visit to the Uzbek capital, Tashkent.
Kawaguchi's trip to Central Asia has special significance, as she is due to articulate Japan's new policy toward the Silk Route states in a speech in Tashkent later today. Furthermore, the Japanese Foreign Ministry has managed to get all five Central Asian states to agree to send their foreign ministers to a meeting with Kawaguchi in the Kazakh capital, Astana, on 28 August.
A statement released by Japan's Foreign Ministry prior to Kawaguchi's departure said Japan will have "two pillars" in its new foreign policy toward Central Asia. The first is to further strengthen Japan's efforts to promote and tighten bilateral relations with each state. The second is to promote cooperation with Central Asia as a whole.
Alex Vatanka is an editor at the London-based Jane's analysis group. He told RFE/RL that Japan sees an opportunity in Central Asia. "It's a good chunk of land on the Eurasian land mass where you are looking at still evolving states," he said. "Nothing has been put down permanently yet in any way, so it's not too late for an outside power such as Japan to move in and try and influence events and obviously put their mark on the shape these countries are now taking."
"When it comes to overseas development aid, Japan is the second largest, so maybe again to talk about the Tajikistans of the world, which is one of the poorest countries around, a Japanese check of $100 million or so to help them with certain projects is a lot of money."
The Japanese press has made no secret of the fact that securing energy supplies is one of Kawaguchi's goals in Central Asia.
The most interesting part of Kawaguchi's trip should come on 28 August, when the foreign ministers of the five Central Asian states travel to Kazakhstan to meet with her.
Vatanka said the reasons the Central Asian states are interested in Kawaguchi's visit are clear, although maybe too optimistic. "They're looking for fairly speedy financial assistance," he said. "I think there's a lot of wishful thinking going on -- perhaps Japanese manufacturers coming down to Central Asia and putting up factories, creating jobs, helping regenerate the economies of these states."
That Turkmenistan is sending its foreign minister to Astana is news in itself. Turkmenistan is the only Central Asian state that is not part of either the Central Asian Economic Cooperation Organization or the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. And Turkmenistan has only minimal participation in CIS affairs. Turkmen Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov may be going simply because -- unlike the other four states -- Tokyo does not currently have an embassy in Turkmenistan. That is also the reason Turkmenistan is not on Kawaguchi's itinerary.
But Vatanka suggests there may be another reason why all five foreigner ministers are meeting in Astana. Vatanka said that with great powers like Russia, China, and the United States vying for influence in Central Asia, the governments may look upon Japan as something of a neutral player.
"One thing Japan does have in its favor is that the country is relatively independent. It's not the United States. It's not Russia. It's not China. It's not as threatening as those three in many ways. But it is the second-largest aid provider around the world. When it comes to overseas development aid, Japan is the second largest, so maybe again to talk about the Tajikistans of the world, which is one of the poorest countries around, a Japanese check of $100 million or so to help them with certain projects is a lot of money," Vatanka said.
Vatanka agreed that the stated policy of the Japanese Foreign Ministry -- to increase cooperation among the Central Asian states themselves -- is essential to making the region a stable partner for any outside country. If Kawaguchi can convince the Central Asian states of this need, she will have succeeded where so many others have failed.