PRAGUE, August 27, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi travels to Central Asia on August 28 for the first visit to the region ever made by a Japanese head of government.
The visit to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan is the culmination of more than a decade of effort by Japan to forge stronger links with the Central Asian republics.
Tokyo's policy of economic engagement, coupled with low-profile political encouragement, has won praise from Central Asian leaders, leading Uzbek President Islam Karimov to describe Japan as a role model.
Japan has given well over $2 billion in economic and social aid to Central Asia since those republics gained independence from the Soviet Union.
Energy From A Stable Source
Of course, Japan's great need for energy resources makes Central Asia an attractive area to court. "Japan is very reliant upon imports of fossil fuels, oil, etc., and Japan has to look for as many markets as it can, to ensure that it can continue to have a good flow of resources, and these [Central Asian] nations obviously provide a further opportunity for that," notes Christopher Hood of London's Royal Institute of International Affairs.
Presently, some 80 percent of Japanese oil comes from the Middle East, a region threatened by war and instability.
Japanese Ambassador to Kazakhstan Tetsuo Ito has made clear Japan's preoccupation with Central Asian energy, saying, "We attach great importance to the abundance of natural resources in this region as a stable source of energy supply."
Tokyo realizes that in order to secure resources successfully in the long term, it needs stable conditions in the exporting countries. Koizumi has shaped Japanese policy with this in mind, encouraging regional cooperation among Central Asian countries to increase their prosperity and therefore their stability.
Beating Out Asian Rivals
Analyst Hood sees Koizumi's trip as part of Japan's effort to be in a good position as competition increases with China and South Korea for Central Asian oil and gas.
"Japan is trying to get in early to develop good relationships, so that basically it will not have all its eggs in one basket," he says.
Tokyo is also interested in the possibility that cooperation in Asia could in future years lead to the formation of an Asian common market, like that provided in Europe by the European Union.
"The creation of a common market in Central Asia is very profitable for Kazakhstan especially, and for other countries, including Japan," Ambassador Ito added..
Also, analyst Hood says the diplomatic row that has broken out between Japan, China, and the Koreas over Koizumi's visits to a World War II shrine has left the Central Asian states undisturbed.
"I don't think they feel themselves to be threatened in the same way [as China and the Koreas] by a strong Japan, and I think in many respects that they probably benefit more from a strong Japan," Hood says.
Japan Takes Independent Path
It's notable that Koizumi is going to Uzbekistan, despite the poor international standing of that country since the bloody events of May 2005 in the city of Andijon, where security forces allegedly shot down hundreds of protesters. The government denies those reports, saying that it put down an armed revolt.
Since then, President Karimov has had frosty relations with Washington, which he accuses of interference in Uzbek affairs, and has withdrawn permission for the U.S. military to use an Uzbek air base to supply its troops in Afghanistan.
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.
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.
Koizumi will visit Kazakhstan on August 28, where he will have talks with President Nursultan Nazarbaev and other officials. He then goes to Uzbekistan, where he will meet President Karimov and others.
Koizumi is due to relinquish his post in late September.
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