Japan and Georgia: so far, so close
Japan and Georgia are two countries looking at a geopolitical mirror. At first sight, the two countries are far apart, physically and qualitatively. Japan is an economic Empire of 120 million people with superb technological capabilities. Georgia is a small country whose population is less than a fifth than that of Tokyo.
And yet we are so close!
Both our countries have part of our territory effectively annexed by Russia. Georgia’s Abkhazian and S. Ossetian regions are Russian protectorates under military occupation, existing as “independent” non-states as Moscow’s colonies. Japan’s Northern Territories are lost in a desert of annexation, without the concrete path to reunification that was available to Germany in 1989. The bottom line is this: each country is building a narrative of living with Russia but not in Russia. The long road to reunification cannot be abandoned, or pursued with other than diplomatic means.
But we are also becoming physically closer. As technology and economic growth are revitalizing the ancient Silk Way, Georgia and Japan emerge as bridges between mature and emerging economies. Japan is of course the third biggest economy in the world and is a global investment and technology hub that pioneered the road to the Pacific Century. Georgia on the other hand is an emerging economy that tries to imbue its location with economic significance, creating a nexus of free trade agreements and physical infrastructure that bridges Europe and Asia.
Georgia’s capital city of Tbilisi sits at the crossroads between Europe and Asia, and has been an important link in trade since the days of the Silk Road.
Last but not least, both countries are committed to the “Global West”: to multilateralism, sovereignty, free trade, liberal democracy, and the rule of law. Despite living in neighborhoods where democracy is the exception rather than the rule, Georgia and Japan have bet their future in their membership of a democratic community of nations. Neither Japan nor Georgia want or can afford to live in a world of asymmetrical bilateral relations. In this sense we stand as two guardians of the global west in the east.
Are Japan and Georgia too far apart to be relevant to each other?
No, we are not.
The distance between us is shrinking, as we are in the opposite end of a tunnel linking the Atlantic with the Pacific economies, developed and emerging economies.
The global mindset is changing and so is our perception of space and geography. Georgia is no longer “on the fringes” of Europe, but rather at the center of a new “Eastern European” world. Hydroelectric and loop technologies are changing our understanding of what is distant, by reducing the cost of railway connections, to the extent that overland and shipping transport costs gradually converge. Our ideas of “landlocked” regions, as naturally underdeveloped and doomed to stagnation, are changing and vast expanses of sparsely populated regions are reopening, after centuries of low-growth and underdevelopment. The new Silk Way concept linking Europe to the Far East are being revitalized, redrawing attention to a part of the world Europeans have come to neglect since Portuguese Caravels circumvented the Magellan Passage to reach China and “the Japans.”
Georgia is strategically located between Europe and Asia with preferential access to the Single European Market - through the Association Agreement (AA) and the Deep and Comprehensive Trade agreement (DCFTA), the CIS, and China. We have been negotiating the same kind of Trade regime with India. Given globally low energy prices, a competitive work force, and increasingly sophisticated logistics infrastructure, Georgia is precisely the kind of partner Japan seeks as an export driven global manufacturing powerhouse: this is a place where the vectors of localization and globalization intersect with each other, making Georgia a reliable partner in the localization of a qualitatively different corporate culture and a purveyor of Western digitalized standards and ideals, thus creating opportunity for anyone who can see it and exploit it.
What is the significance of Japan in Georgia, a small corner of the world in post-Soviet Europe?
For successive Georgian governments, including the current one, Japan is a major donor nation with a long term and therefore wise-perspective in international relations, distinct for its so-called advanced engagement. Georgia is benefitting from Japanese know-how transfer and cooperation in a number of sectors: from nature conservation and agricultural development to urban planning.
For a diplomat, it is also obvious that we share a comparable challenge to our territorial integrity, from the very same difficult neighbor, who happens to cover 1/6 of the earth’s surface and still feels asphyxiated. Like Japan, we are seeking a way to live with Russia, not in Russia.
The city of Batumi sits on the Black Sea. Russia maintained a military base by Batumi until the land was finally returned in 2007.
But in everyday terms, Japan means very different things to the Georgian in the street.
For my son’s and grandson’s generation the answer to the question “what does Japan stand for” would no doubt entail a reference to anime, technology, and even cuisine (Sushi!). For my grandson in particular, Japanese methodology for teaching mathematics in his St. Antoine Exupery French school. A good example of our globalized world! I suppose, one could even refer to the emergence of Tochinoshin Tsuyoshi (Levan Gorgadze) as an Ozeki Sumo fighter; unfortunately, given the time difference, we have to stay up at night to watch his fights whenever – or if - they are broadcasted.
I am confident that all generations will soon talk of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, which will consolidate Japan’s modern cultural footprint in our cosmopolitan civilization, as the biggest city in the world will host the biggest event in the world.
But for my generation, there is an altogether different answer. Japan is an essential part of the “West,” culturally, politically, and economically. Democracy, liberal economy and rule of law have been an integral part of Japan’s postwar success story, inspiring post-Soviet states. Today, the question is whether this civilization of transnational economic corporations within the framework of international democratic cooperation is resilient. For Georgia, the answer to this question is key to our survival, and Japan is a shining example on that thorny and complex transformation.
Is there scope for strategic cooperation between Japan and Georgia?
While most eyes in Eurasia are currently focused on China’s Belt and Road Initiative, Japan is known an investor in infrastructure that combines state of the art know-how with managerial excellence and high-impact. There are no Japanese “white elephants,” partly because Japan has decades of experience in development financial instruments appropriate for infrastructural development, but also because these companies have a holistic approach in investment, which includes know-how transfer in management practices. This assistance has been always transformational and never transactional, by the way! Ultimately, Japan does not only transfer know-how, but also a work ethic: discipline, patience, loyalty, team spirit, and forward-engagement approach in doing business.
Japanese leadership in the G-7 and G-20 frameworks brought to the table a discussion about developing quality rather than quantity infrastructure. In a period of global economic slowdown in which public investment in infrastructure is likely to accelerate, this is a timely discussion in which the world can look to Japan for leadership.
This emphasis on quality, multimodal transport infrastructure and transparency – which are distinct features of the Japanese national brand – are also the inevitable strategic principles of an alternative vision for Asia that emphasizes transparency, productivity, and democracy.
In sum, the Quad’s Indo-Pacific Strategy is now emerging as coherent narrative of development that in many respects echoes the priorities of the European Union. I would think that the logical coextension of the Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy between India and Japan would be a clear strategy towards Central Asia. In promoting such an alternative vision, Japanese leadership is necessary. And Tokyo will find no better or more willing ally than Georgia in the region.
In that respect, our cooperation could be substantially strategic, in the sense that Georgia could play the role of a regional broker for Japan, as a “facilitator” or “launchpad” (naturally, a small but a strategic one!) for Japanese corporations in the wider region. For political, economic, historical, and geopolitical reasons, Georgia can certainly play the role of an accelerator and enabler of Japanese initiatives from the Black Sea all the way to Afghanistan and further. Just to remind that Georgia’s engagement with the EU through the AA licenses the so-called “third parties” have an extra channel of communication with the European market space. I would love to see the day when a Shinkansen train would link the Mediterranean, Black, and Caspian seas, via Azerbaijan, Turkey and Georgia with extended and intensified the ferries, produced by the Mitsubishi Inc., and shuttling to and from the Romania’s Black Sea shorelines.
You are currently the Vice-Chairman of the Anaklia Development Consortium, developing the first Deep-Sea Port in Georgia. Where does this vision fit with the vision you are describing?
Anaklia embodies Georgia’s aspirations.
Georgia is a leading reformer in the Black Sea because we have different objectives. We do not only follow prescriptive reforms but also aspire to catalyzing developments in our region. We want to be an enabler of trade linking great economies; not a small country squeezed between behemoths.
We want to give our location meaning, rather than wait from our neighbors to define our instrumentality or lack of it. We do not want to simply survive: we want to have a meaningful role that is of course relevant to our allies and partners. I know that this is a tall order due to vested interests and resistance, overt and covert, from our big neighbor that is not keen to see viable and functional states along in its periphery.
To be clear, we want to develop a balance of functional instrumentality vis-à-vis all our neighbors, to the extent that we don’t compromise our sovereignty. That requires a different kind of governance. In my view developing nations become developed economies by importing not only answers to their problems – copying – but by importing questions and coming up with context-specific answers. In this vein, Anaklia is about Georgian credibility and nation branding, setting a new standard in governance, and that is why it is my honor to serve this project.
The question we in Anaklia ask is not merely how can we can get cargo from “Destination A” to “Destination B”. We ask how can we attract individuals from big global cities to Anaklia, meeting salary and quality of life expectations, as well as providing business opportunity, inspired by the precedent of places like Yokohama or Singapore. To achieve this, we need global standard schools, museums and of course roads and railways. We need to focus on quality. I know this will happen. It may not take one or five years, but it will happen. The right people are in place, and we are all focused.
Georgia’s port city of Batumi is currently an important link in trade between Georgia and Japan. The development of Anklia could greatly enlarge the role Georgia plays in global trade
Make no mistake: Anaklia is not an island of development in an emerging economy. There has to be a possibility for business development in a space where there is no corruption, but there is freedom of expression and legal certainty. Georgia provides as much. We have completed a critical mass of reforms that enables us to make a global value proposition.
We are not only building a new port. Within a year after the port opens, we will have laid the foundations of a City. Legally, the City will be empowered with the world’s most tested and business-friendly regulatory framework, including English language tribunals for international arbitration and, to make our proposition attractive, a zero-corporate tax regime. This will give us an opportunity to talk to global corporates. We not only want to become a transport hub, but also a financial center where global corporates can stop thinking about “problems” and unleash their creativity. There’s no place quite like Anaklia in our region so far. It embodies everything Georgia aspires to be in the foreseeable future.
You seem to still think that there is scope for the evolution of the Euro-Atlantic to a Trans-Atlantic-Pacific community. That is peculiar at a time of multilateral crisis.
True, there is a crisis.
But you should recall that I have devoted all my life to Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic and European perspective and it would take more than a crisis to shake off my beliefs. And in taking such an attitude, I am in good company. Japan remains a power profoundly committed to multilateralism, sealing a Free Trade Agreement with the European Union and remaining a signatory to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) even as it supports, bolsters, and advances its bilateral ties with its allies.
Georgia is committed to the same worldview. And there is another reason we share a similar worldview with Japan.
When I served as Secretary General of the Organization of the Black Sea Economic Cooperation (BSEC), I used to visit Ankara frequently, meeting Turkish officials and accredited Ambassadors. I recall meeting a high-ranking Japanese diplomat, who was highly interested in exploring a wide range of issues, showing a keen interest in forming a nuanced view of the diplomatic landscape, and especially on Russia's behavior with the BSEC Member States. I asked him why was Japan so interested in these developments. He smiled and answered: "We in Japan want to know all the details and nuances for the behavior of our closest big neighbor."
I did not grasp the point immediately but later understood that we both have lost territory to Russia and we both concerned with Moscow’s volatile nature.
We share the same tragedy, in Japan’s Northern Territories and in the Georgian regions of Ossetia and Abkhazia. Russia’s sole claim to the territories is that of a conqueror and a colonizer. The occupation and ethnic cleansing is the wrong foundation for our relationship. The right of our people to return permeates every democratic principle to which, theoretically at least, Russia adheres to. It is now high time to right this wrong. But convincing Russia to respect the notion of a principled world order is not a challenge for the faint at heart.
[Ambassador Japaridze, you just came from a tour of Japan. What did you bring back with you?
I am back to Georgia first of all enriched with knowledge! Sad that such a formative travel did not come earlier, grateful for the respect and attention I received, and frankly positively charged with a sense of the possibilities laid before us. Japan is a land of opportunity filled with entrepreneurial people with a great sense of commitment, focus, pride rectitude, dignity and patriotism with whom working is truly a pleasure.
My meetings with members of the government and awe-inspiring corporate leaders – Toyota, Mitsubishi, Nippon Koei, the Yokohama port – is an enthralling experience. Each and everyone, in their own way, have it in their gift to change the route of their sector. We had fascinating exchanges and it is my hope and belief that Japan will come to look at Georgia as a window and a facilitator, to the South Caucasus, Central Asia, and naturally, Russia but from a different angel. Naturally, I would never forget the “Japanese lessons ” of my wonderful guide Tami who diligently tried to explain to me the habits of the Japanese life.
This was a learning trip. I tried to share with my hosts my own experiences that I hope are relevant. But above all I tried to learn how to look at the world, including Georgia, through Japanese lenses. I was also thrilled with my meeting with the students and professors of the Hitotubashi University. It is always fascinating to look at students, as they reflect the aspiration and character of a country in a more direct way. Experience puts a veil of accommodation to the expectations of the person we converse with. With students, you get more of a glimpse of how the world really looks like when you are not looking. And what I saw fascinated me. Ambition coupled with respect.
On my way back from Kyoto to Tokyo, before boarding my plane back to Tbilisi, I dropped by a bookstore to buy Inazo Nitobe’s Bushido, to learn more about Japan, its history, philosophy of life, to dig dipper into the “soul of Japan”. It’s been a privilege being in Japan.