Japan in Central Asia, Part II

by Nathan Hamm on 8/28/2006 · 2 comments

With Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi’s arrival in Kazakhstan, reports on his visit to Central Asia are drawing attention to Japanese overtures to Central Asian governments being out of step with Western governments’ policy in the region. In addtion to needing to secure stable energy supplies, Japanese policy in the region has an element of power politics to it.

RFE/RL suggests that Japan is far more interested in countering Chinese and Russian influence in Central Asia than it is in the region’s politics or human rights record.

Koizumi’s Japan, a close ally of the United States, obviously seeks to remain engaged with Tashkent in the interests of enhancing regional stability.

Political analysts, in fact, see Tokyo’s engagement with Central Asia as a possible counterweight to the growing influence of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), the regional grouping comprising China, Russia, and all the Central Asian states except Turkmenistan.

Although lacking the longtime influence of Russia over Central Asia and the immediacy of China’s presence, Japan has the leverage of its economic and financial power and is determined to secure a share in the region’s natural resources, which would dilute China’s possible dominance of the oil and gas in the area.

The BBC sounds the same note and notes that the US likely sees Japanese policy in the region as a good thing.

While such a high-level visit as Mr Koizumi’s may raise some eyebrows – the EU still has sanctions in place against the Uzbek government because of human rights – it comes amid some signs the US is looking to rebuild ties.

“I think Japan would not have done this if it were going to get a negative reaction from the US,” Col Langton said.

I agree with this. Both India and Japan have extremely compelling reasons to engage Central Asian governments primarily in terms of security, economics, and energy. Moreso than India, which enjoys fairly good relations with the US, Japan has great potential to be a go-between, or merely a friendly voice of support, for US interests in the region without the baggage, for lack of a better term, carried by Western states.

The RFE/RL story, in fact, supports that Japan will, in at least some ways, advocate US positions in its relations with Central Asian governments.

Tokyo also aims to help swing the delivery possibilities for Central Asian energy southward — away from Russia and China — with pipelines planned through Afghanistan to the Indian Ocean.

This is something India also has good reason to support. And encouraging Central to South Asia links and expansion of pipeline export routes is something the US has mentioned as a goal for a while now, most recently here.

For background on Japanese relations with Central Asia, see an earlier post that includes the text of the “Central Asia Plus Japan” action plan.

Update — Ben has a reminder as to why Turkmenistan is not on Koizumi’s itinerary.

Back to the original post: Changing tracks a bit, Ferghana.ru has an interesting story on earlier Japanese interaction with Central Asia of an altogether different variety.

20, Yakassarai Street in Tashkent is an address mentioned in all reference books on Central Asia published in Japan. This is a museum dedicated to the presence of Japanese POWs in Uzbekistan in the wake of World War II.

Documents, photos, household goods on the display give a fair impression of the life of 23,000 soldiers and officers of the former Quantun Army in the Asian republic. Brought to Uzbekistan in 1945, they were scattered among various regions including Tashkent, Angren, Bekabad, Kokand, and Kagan. The Japanese army had never participated in demolition of Soviet cities and villages (it had only fought in the environs of Lake Hasan), but the Japanese POWs were involved as labor force at construction sites throughout Uzbekistan.

The story reports that the Soviet government took steps to make the Japanese role in the postwar construction of Uzbekistan unknown and to eradicate physical traces of their presence. They were the “Komsomol activists” who built the hydroelectric plant in Bekabad, and in the 1950s, an order was given to destroy the cemeteries containing the graves of the 817 Japanese POWs who died in Uzbekistan. They were spared and restored during the 1990s.

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Nathan is the founder and Principal Analyst for Registan, which he launched in 2003. He was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Uzbekistan 2000-2001 and received his MA in Central Asian Studies from the University of Washington in 2007. Since 2007, he has worked full-time as an analyst, consulting with private and government clients on Central Asian affairs, specializing in how socio-cultural and political factors shape risks and opportunities and how organizations can adjust their strategic and operational plans to account for these variables. More information on Registan's services can be found here, and Nathan can be contacted via Twitter or email.

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