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How Japan is Charting a New Direction for Central Asia

By Marilyn Kawakami
December 22, 2023
Whilst Central Asia is often said to be on the periphery of Japan’s foreign policy, the current international landscape and Central Asia’s historical and economic ties with Russia have shed new light on the importance of Japan-Central Asia cooperation. By working together, Japan and Central Asia are advancing regional development and energy transition.
A map of Central Asia
Japan has long served as a catalyst for regional cooperation in Central Asia, with the view that regional cooperation is essential for the ‘open, stable and self-sustained development’ of the region.

In particular, since the independence of these former Soviet republics in 1992, Japan has focused on socio-economic cooperation instead of geopolitics to contribute to stable nation-building and sustainable development. Notably, Japan has invested in and funded transport and communication infrastructure projects all over the region, including the construction of the Irtysh River bridge in eastern Kazakhstan; railway modernisation projects in Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan; road rehabilitation projects in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan; reconstruction and modernisation of airports in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan. Japan has also played a key role in expanding healthcare and education by constructing medical centres and improving access to medical equipment, as well as building schools in Tajikistan’s rural areas.

In 2004, the creation of the Central Asia Plus Japan Dialogue (C5+1), comprised of Japan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan, marked a new era in Japan’s relations with Central Asia. This new forum for cooperation, formalised in Kazakhstan’s capital Astana, remains a central platform for interaction.

In the last decade, Japan’s approach to Central Asia has shifted towards resource diplomacy and deepening business interaction. In October 2015, then-Prime Minister Abe’s visit to the region was primarily focused on energy and affirmed the region’s importance to Japan for resource procurement and infrastructure exports. Rare earth metals, found in everything from solar panels to smartphones to military defence systems, are vital for Japanese high-tech industries. Japan has also been seeking to strengthen its energy security through heavy investment in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan’s oil and gas-related infrastructure. More recently, Japan has been looking to develop renewable energy sources in Kyrgyzstan, including the construction of hydroelectric power plants. Japanese energy companies have also partnered with Kazakhstan for the development of uranium mining.
Wind turbines on a hill

Global geopolitical tensions prompt increased cooperation

As the world grapples with Russia’s aggression against Ukraine and regional security in East Asia becomes increasingly tense, Japan’s approach to Central Asia has shifted to other dimensions beyond economic cooperation, such as strengthening the free and open rules-based international order and cooperation in disarmament, while maintaining development cooperation.

In 2022, Japan and the five Central Asian countries marked the 30th anniversary of their diplomatic relations. In December of the same year, Japanese Foreign Minister Hayashi and his Central Asian counterparts held the 9th Foreign Minister's Meeting of the Central Asia plus Japan Dialogue, discussing cooperation towards strengthening a free and open international order based on the rule of law. They agreed on the importance of upholding the UN Charter and other international laws such as the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries, and the peaceful settlement of international disputes. Discussions also included cooperation in the areas of disarmament and non-proliferation of nuclear weapons, especially in North Korea.

They also began discussions on food and energy security in response to the current global volatility, including Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. This demonstrates how the Russia-Ukraine conflict is shaping relations between Japan and Central Asia, which has been hit hard by the food and energy crisis, as well as affecting the political dynamic of a region that has traditionally been under heavy Russian influence.

The Trans-Caspian International Transport Route (TITR), which connects Asia with Europe bypassing Russia, is another key topic of importance for Japan and Central Asia in the current geopolitical landscape. The war in Ukraine along with sanctions have disrupted normal trade routes, and the TITR can therefore help diversify transport routes. Japan and the five Central Asian nations held in March 2023 the Twelfth C5+1 Dialogue on the theme of ‘Connectivity with Central Asia and the Caucasus’, where Japan stressed the importance of connectivity to the sea for a landlocked region like Central Asia in order to achieve free, open and sustainable development. Discussions about the TITR are still nascent. However, given its relevance, we can expect to see Japan and Central Asian states deepening discussions in the near future.

A map of the Caspian Sea

Towards a new model of development based on sustainability

The current geopolitical situation has prompted Japan to seek a new model of development to achieve sustainable development in Central Asia, with particular emphasis on, as Minister Hayashi said, ‘investment on people’ and ‘quality of growth’. Foreign Minister Hayashi’s statement demonstrates how Japan views human resource capacity-building as an intrinsic part of nation-building. One illustration is Japan’s support, over 2022 and 2023, for a training programme for Uzbek Agency for Technical Regulation specialists through a grant worth USD 500,000.

Training courses have also been offered through Japan’s Technical Intern Training Program and the Japan Center for Human Development, while the Project for Human Resource Development Scholarship (JDS) has been providing grants for master’s and doctoral degrees to empower youth. These courses teach local entrepreneurs about Japanese management and business philosophy, including the world-famous kaizen approach of continuous improvement, as well as business planning. Japan has also implemented mobility programmes for Central Asian universities, allowing students to travel to Japan for educational and business purposes.

Supporting Central Asia’s energy transition

As part of realising their sustainability goals under the Paris Agreement, the Central Asian nations expressed during the C5+1 Dialogue their interest in cooperating in the areas of decarbonisation and green growth through Japan’s Joint Crediting Mechanism (JCM). The JCM is a mechanism for reducing developing countries’ emissions using Japanese decarbonisation technologies.

In September 2023, the parties established the Ministerial Economic and Energy Dialogue of the “Central Asia plus Japan” Dialogue in order to collaborate on achieving net-zero emissions by 2050, and to promote the adoption of renewable energy and the optimisation of ageing gas-fired power plants. Furthermore, both parties encouraged public-private partnerships in Japan and Central Asia towards energy transition. Interest in Central Asia is growing among Japanese companies that have left Russia since its conflict with Ukraine.

Central Asia has traditionally been under Russian influence. However, close cooperation with these countries in promoting sustainable development as well as decarbonisation and green growth will enable Japan to set a new direction for the region in years to come.
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