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Central Asia: Japan Keen To Boost Regional Ties

A Japanese delegation today began a 10-day trip to Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Azerbaijan to pursue the possibility of energy cooperation. The move is seen as an opportunity for Japan to expand its interests in the region, particularly in the areas of financial assistance and investment.

Prague, 11 July 2002 (RFE/RL) -- A Japanese mission comprising some 30 government, industry, and academic representatives arrived today in Kazakhstan at the start of a 10-day trip to Central Asia and Azerbaijan. The team, headed by Senior Deputy Foreign Minister Seiken Sugiura, will move on to Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, and Turkmenistan before returning to Tokyo on 21 July.

According to Japan's Jiji Press agency, the so-called "Silk Road" mission is not intended to drum up direct supplies of oil and natural gas. Rather, the trip is seen as a chance for Tokyo to help Japanese investors looking to invest in the region.

Hiroyuky Imahashi, the Japanese consul in the Uzbek capital Tashkent, tells RFE/RL that the Silk Road mission is part of his country's efforts to expand cooperation with Central Asia and Azerbaijan in the energy field and to help the region to integrate into the rest of the Asian continent.

"The Japanese government [has stressed the] importance of mutual dependence between the Silk Road region and the rest of the Asian region -- and particularly in the energy field, because the world depends almost [entirely] on resources from the Middle East. And we think there is more possibility in Central Asia. That's why the Japanese government decided to send this delegation."

Imahashi did not discuss which specific projects Japanese officials would be looking to pursue with their counterparts in Central Asia and Azerbaijan.

So far, Japan has worked with relatively little success to diversify its oil-import sources away from the Middle East. Japan, which has almost no oil reserves of its own, is the world's second-largest consumer of oil after the United States. Most of its oil and natural gas is imported from the Persian Gulf and Southeast Asia.

In addition to Japan's interest in energy issues in the region, Imahashi says, there are strong cultural ties linking his country with the nations of Central Asia.

"For Japan, this area has not...a strategic or security purpose, [but] more like a moral or spiritual ideal for Japanese people. Buddhism in Japan and the tradition spiritual base for the Japanese came from this area. And the name Silk Road still has a lot of meaning [for the] Japanese people."

About 90 million people in Japan consider themselves Buddhists. Buddhism gradually spread from India along the Silk Road through Central Asia to China and Japan. By the end of the first millennium, however, Islamic conquerors and merchants had all but eradicated Buddhism in Central Asia.

Since the mid-1990s, Japan has worked to develop its relations with the newly independent Central Asian states as part of its policy of "Silk Road diplomacy." Its activities to date have focused on organizing grants and loans to modernize the region's infrastructure.

Nodir Akhundjanov is a Tashkent program officer with the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), a governmental agency responsible for fostering technical cooperation with developing countries. He tells RFE/RL Japan is likely to continue making infrastructure and human capital investments in Central Asia now that those investments have gained an additional antiterrorist aspect.

"Japan would like to strengthen stability and to help develop Central Asia as a whole. It's an investment for the future -- a possibility, first of all, to trade. It gives a guarantee for security and the peace in the region; it rehabilitates the old Silk Road."

Some Japanese officials also see the opportunity to take part in Afghan nation-building as a chance for their country to develop its Eurasian foreign policy. Tokyo has pledged up to $500 million in aid to Afghanistan over the next 2.5 years. In addition, it has extended $8 million in assistance to both Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, and provided $2 million in emergency aid to Tajikistan. Such assistance is seen as contributing to the security needed to help pull the region, including Afghanistan, out of the political and social instability of the past.

Japan yesterday granted Kazakhstan some $3.5 million in aid to help develop ambulance and emergency medical care systems in the capital Astana, which currently has no emergency care hospitals.

Such steps mean that while Japan has slashed its development-aid budget by 10 percent for the 2002 fiscal year, JICA's activities in Central Asia are continuing to develop. Akhundjanov says, "[Japan's] interest for Central Asia is growing because, before in the Asian-Pacific region, the presence of JICA was incredibly high, and these countries -- Malaysia, China, Indonesia, and Thailand -- now [are] more or less developed. So the presence of Japan in these countries [is] decreasing and automatically that influences Central Asia."

Japan's focus in recent years has shown a shift away from its earlier Cold War stance, when Washington encouraged Tokyo to distance itself from the Soviet Union and China and focus instead on the Pacific and beyond.

Akhundjanov notes that JICA is currently preparing to hear requests from its Central Asian recipient governments for the current fiscal year. Describing Japan's cooperation with Uzbekistan, he says, "Now it's time to determine [the direction] of some future cooperation with Uzbekistan and Japan, to determine the priorities, [and] to screen the [strategies] of JICA and Japan's activities in Uzbekistan. [Japan] also has to monitor implemented projects and the projects with which we have some difficulties [in order] to find out why. And finally, [we must settle] some agreements on future cooperation, to hear from Uzbekistan what Uzbekistan wants [from] Japan's presence in the future. And Uzbekistan has to highlight priority areas, maybe some concrete projects. And Japan has to discuss this."

Uzbekistan's fledgling economy relies heavily on Japanese trade and investment for growth, and its partnership with Japan seems likely to stretch into a long-term commitment, given the current antiterrorist priorities.

Akhundjanov says Japan is joining more international aid projects that seek to fight poverty. In 2000, Tokyo opened a representative office of its External Trade Organization in Tashkent. The following year, the Uzbek-Japan Center, which provides business training and assistance in developing cultural ties, also opened in the Uzbek capital. The same year, Japan almost doubled its grant aid to Uzbekistan. In return, Akhundjanov notes, Uzbekistan has made some headway in promoting economic and business reforms.

This kind of support is key if Uzbekistan and other countries in Central Asia hope to lure the attention of larger lenders in the West. The International Monetary Fund last month said Uzbekistan has made "significant process" in reforming its heavily centralized economy, although it said more must be done before the IMF resumes full cooperation with the Central Asian republic.