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Japan's Prime Minister Tours Central Asia As China, Others Court Region

BISHKEK -- Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is focusing on trade ties during a weeklong journey across Central Asia, a region where China, Russia, and Western countries are also vying for influence.

In Kyrgyzstan on October 26, Abe held separate talks with President Almazbek Atambaev and Prime Minister Temir Sariev.

An agreement was reached for Japan to provide Kyrgyzstan with development aid of up to some $120 million.

In 2016, that aid will include $14 million for renovation of Manas international airport near Bishkek, $1.5 million to support the agricultural sector, and $107 million loan to revamp the Osh-Batken-Isfana highway in the south.

Accompanied by representatives of some 50 Japanese companies, Abe began his six-country trip in Mongolia on October 22. He has also visited Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, and will travel to Kazakhstan before returning to Japan.

Before setting out, Abe said that "Mongolia and Central Asia are...very important geopolitically" and that he "would like to take a huge step in boosting ties with each country."

The Central Asian states "have relied on exports of natural resources," he said, "but now are seeking high-quality infrastructure as they aim for an economy based on high value-added" industries.

On October 26, Japan's Sumitomo Corporation said it had won a $300 million order to build a 400-megawatt gas-fired power plant in natural-gas-rich Turkmenistan.

The announcement came three days after Abe signed $18 billion worth of deals with Turkmenistan's government in the capital, Ashgabat. Abe was quoted as saying the gas-fired power plant is to be completed in 2018.

Turkmenistan holds the world's fourth-largest natural gas reserves and has become a major gas suppliers to Japan's regional rival China in recent years.

On October 24, Abe signed eight deals in Tajikistan focusing on bilateral economic cooperation.

On October 25, he agreed $8 billion worth of deals for investment in Uzbekistan's energy, transport, mineral resources, auto, telecommunications, and chemical industries.

Uzbek President Islam Karimov said that Japan will contribute $5 billion to the projects and Uzbekistan $3 billion.

Abe is expected to deliver a speech on his government’s Central Asia policy in Kazakhstan's capital, Astana, on October 27.

With China actively moving to the region through its new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), Abe has pledged to triple infrastructure orders from Japanese firms globally, including in Central Asia, to 30 trillion yen ($250 billion) by 2020.

The AIIB is seen as a rival to the Washington-based World Bank and the Manila-based Asian Development Bank, which has been headed by its biggest donor, Japan, since it was founded in 1966.

The United States and Japan have declined to join the China-led AIIB.

Meanwhile, Central Asia's former imperial master Russia has been actively encouraging its former Soviet republics to join the Eurasian Economic Union, which now includes Kyrgyzstan and founding member Kazakhstan -- the regional economic leader -- along with Russia, Belarus, and Armenia.

Tajikistan hosts Russia's largest military contingent abroad, with some 7,000 troops, and Russia has an air base in Kyrgyzstan.

Last month, Chinese-Kazakh agreements worth more than $20 billion were signed in Beijing during an official visit by Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev.

In 2013, while visiting Kazakhstan, Chinese President Xi Jinping unveiled the Silk Road Economic Belt -- an ambitious project of massive investments in infrastructure to boost trade and economic integration across Eurasia.

With reporting by RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service, Japan News, Reuters, AFP, and Interfax
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