Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has just finished a tour of Central Asia. Abe's trip was historic, since he was the first Japanese prime minister to visit all five Central Asian states; it was symbolic, since Japan has long been involved in Central Asia and Abe's visits reminded the region's people of Japan's support during these nearly 25 years; and it was surprising, because Abe was talking with Central Asian officials about signing contracts worth billions of dollars.
In the wake of Abe's trip there are questions about whether this signifies a more active Japanese role in Central Asia. Is Japan about to enter a "competition" for Central Asian resources and contracts? What are Japan's motives and how do the Central Asian countries stand to benefit or lose if Japan does indeed intend to focus more on the region?
RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, assembled a panel to discuss these and other questions related to Abe's tour of Central Asia.
Azatlyk director Muhammad Tahir moderated the panel. Participating from Moscow was Jack Farchy, a correspondent who covers, among other countries, Russia and the Central Asian states for the Financial Times. Also joining from Tokyo was Timur Dadabaev, an associate professor at the University of Tsukuba, author of numerous works on Japan's relations with Central Asia, including the soon-to-be-released book Japan In Central Asia. And I was in the studio here in Prague.
Dadabaev started the discussion by saying Abe had four main objectives for going to Central Asia: "to strengthen the Japanese business community's standing in Central Asia," "to secure the orders of Central Asian countries for Japanese corporations," "to build the soft power of Japan in the region," and "to extend the humanitarian assistance that Japan has been extending over a period of 24 years...."
Farchy just co-authored a report on Abe's official visit to Central Asia. He said part of the motivation for such an unprecedented tour by a Japanese prime minister was China. "China's new Silk Road policy that was first announced a couple of years ago but has really been gathering steam this year [and] Japanese companies are beginning to miss out on deals to Chinese companies," in Central Asia and other countries.
Farchy said China's wave of investments in Central Asia at least partially explained why Abe was talking about some $18 billion in contracts in Turkmenistan and some $8.5 billion in Uzbekistan. "China is prepared to spend a lot of money here that would also open the door to Chinese companies and contractors to win all of the contracts, which typically Japan has seen as its specialty, these kind of infrastructure, technology services contracts, so now we're seeing a political push to try to reverse that."
The panel agreed that Japan's interests in Central Asia are economic not political. Dadabaev pointed out, "If you look at the focus of the initiatives and at the list of the documents signed during the visit it is quite obvious that economy dominates the agenda for the Japanese foreign policy engagement in Central Asia."
Farchy also said he did not see any evidence Japan's interest in Central Asia extended beyond economics. "I don't think that Japan wants to become a new political force in Central Asia like say Russia is, I'm not sure China really wants that role, either. I think it's much more about business and about economics," he said.
That said, Japan's current economic interest in Central Asia does not mean that will remain Tokyo's sole purpose there. Japan is well placed to advance politically into Central Asia. Dadabaev noted, "Central Asia is one these rare regions in Asia where there is no sort of history of Japanese imperialism and that makes Central Asia more accessible for Japan."
Japan was a master of soft power in Central Asia before the term "soft power" was coined. The Japanese government has supported clean water and agricultural projects, helped finance construction of schools, provided funds to improve health-care systems, roads, power supply systems, and many other aspects of Central Asia's infrastructure. During his visit to Tajikistan, for example, Abe offered help in combating locusts, which in recent years have devastated Tajikistan's farmland.
Dadabaev said that was paying off and explained why, according to a recent Japanese study, Central Asia seems to like Japan. "In a recent poll which the Ministry of Foreign Affairs conducted...before the visit happened, they polled all five Central Asian countries in terms of the attitude of the population toward different countries and Japan ranked fairly high in terms of the favorable image and that adds up to the trust with which Japan can operate" in the region.
The subject of whether a more visible Japanese presence complicated the balance of influence among the outside countries also involved in Central Asia came up. Farchy said invigorated Japanese activity in the region was a plus for Central Asia. "I think from the Central Asian perspective, Central Asian countries and leaders, and elites, love as much competition for their attention as they can drum up because the more competition the more likely they are to get better terms for whatever deals there are on the table."
Having another financier for projects would be welcome for the Central Asian governments, which find themselves increasingly in debt to China.
Ahead of Abe's visit, Human Rights Watch called on the Japanese prime minister to use his visit to raise rights concerns with Central Asian leaders. Abe did not do so. But Dadabaev said this might be partially due to Japan's different perception of how respect for human rights and adherence to democratic values are achieved. "Prime Minister Abe didn't emphasize this point [rights and democratic values] during this visit because for him economy and the developmental projects are also part of this human security and that connects to human rights and democracy," Dadabaev said.
The panel dealt with these issues in greater detail and discussed other matter pertaining to Abe's recent visit and the role of Japan in Central Asia.
Listen to the full discussion here: