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Japan-Central Asian Relations: Taking the First Step and Staying at the End

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Japan, economically one of the largest countries in the world, is also one of the productive forces of emerging Asia. According to the data of the World Bank (WB), with a Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of $4.975 trillion, it is the third largest economy in the world after the United States (USA) and China.[1] In 1997, Tokyo launched the Japan Silk Road Diplomacy. The aforementioned initiative is the first to bring the revival of the Historical Silk Road to the agenda before the Belt-Road Project that will connect China to Central Asia and beyond.

In the framework of Official Development Assistance, Japan initiated economic investments in the region and made infrastructure improvements. This initiative of the Japanese was an inspiration to the Silk Road Strategy Act of the USA in 1999, the increasing interest of Russia and the opening of South Korea between 2009-2013. However, Japan’s intiative was overshadowed by China’s Belt and Road Project and Russia’s Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU). Today, Japan, which is in the process of economic recession, maintains its stance on developing its relations with the Central Asian states.[2]

The relations in the format of Central Asia Plus Japan Dialogue/5+1 (CAJD), which Japan started with Central Asian countries for the first time in 2004,[3] set an example to the world and various countries from China to the USA started to develop their relations with the countries of the region within this framework. Within the scope of CAJD, Japanese government officials held meetings at various levels. The Foreign Ministers, who gathered together for seven times, met via videoconference on 6 August 2020 due to the Covid-19 outbreak. Besides, 14 times the Senior Officials Meeting, eight times the Tokyo Dialogue and various economic forums were held.[4]

This system of relations developed by Japan enabled it to adopt a balanced approach towards countries and prevented a country from being excluded. In particular, a country with Permanent Neutrality Status, such as Turkmenistan, was included in the network of relations that Japan wanted to develop within the scope of CAJD. On the other hand, Japan intensified its economic relations, stayed away from the political problems in the region, was not seen as an actor to be feared despite its economic power, and succeeded in positioning itself as an Asian friend.[5]

In the speech he delivered at the 5+1 Meeting held in Tokyo in 2006, Taro Aso, the then Japanese Minister of Foreign Affairs, stated that a new “Great Game” had begun in the region; however, he stated that Central Asia is a corridor of peace and stability. Aso explained that Japan’s interest in the region is based on four pillars. First of all, he stated that the order in the world is like a chain and stated that the prosperity of Japan is parallel to the strength of this chain. For this reason, he stated that the security problems in Central Asia and even in the near geography such as South Asia should be overcome and that Tokyo acts with these aims.

The second base is underground riches such as gold, uranium and energy resources found in both Central Asia and the Caspian region. Emphasizing the richness of the countries in the region, including Azerbaijan, in terms of energy resources, Aso said that they are interested in Central Asia being a source of supply for Japan.

Thirdly, the geographical proximity between Japan and Central Asia and the experience of the structuring model implemented in Japan after the Second World War showed the desire to share with the countries of the region.

For Aso, the last basis is that Central Asia is an important region at the point of expansion and deepening of increasing activities in Japan’s foreign policy.[6]

One of the most important topics that draw attention in Tokyo’s meetings with Central Asian countries is that Central Asian countries reach the economic capacity to develop themselves. At the Seventh Foreign Ministers Meeting held in 2019, then-Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono expressed the issue under the main policy of Japan’s Central Asian diplomacy as “open”, “stable” and with Japan playing the role of a “catalyst” for regional cooperation. Besides, Kono discussed these topics in his speech:[7]

1. Tourism

2. Trade, investment and development

3. Regional security and cooperation, including Afghanistan

Japan’s relations with Central Asian countries are not only shaped within the framework of the CAJD. Japan, adopting a policy about developing bilateral relations, recognized the countries of the region in 1992. The year 2022 marks the 30th anniversary of Tokyo establishing diplomatic relations with Nur-Sultan, Bishkek, Tashkent, Dushanbe and Ashgabat.

According to 2018 data, the trade volume of Japan with Kazakhstan reached 2 billion dollars[8]; in addition, the trade volume with Uzbekistan reached 700 million dollars.[9] While Japan is one of the most important actors in East Asia for the countries of the region, it implements a win-win policy and it is seen that it maintains these relations within the framework of mutual respect. Additionally, Tokyo is trying to develop and deepen its relations with the countries of the region on issues such as transportation, culture, energy and investment.

Being both an Asian country and having democratic values, Japan is aware of the change in the global system. In the process of increasing competition in the world, it tries to develop mutual relations, especially economic relations, with various countries. Besides, Japan, one of the largest economies in the world, needs countries that it can rely on for the supply of underground resources. The competition with China is probably also effective in the foreign policy pursued by Japan recently. Japan, which has a strong relationship with Western countries, is trying to become an effective actor in Eurasia. In particular, the deepening and expansion of its deep-rooted relations with Central Asian countries may provide Japan with an important room for maneuver within the framework of mutual interests. However, Tokyo’s share in the multifaceted relations developed by Central Asian countries with global and regional actors other than Japan is quite limited. This is the reason why Japan needs to intensify its policies towards Central Asia and make more efforts.


[1] “GDP (Current)-US$-Japan”, The World Bank, https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GDP.MKTP.CD?locations=JP&most_recent_value_desc=true, (Date of Accession: 18.11.2021).

[2] Timur Dadabaev, “Central Asia: Japan’s New ‘Old’ Frontier”, East-West Center, https://www.eastwestcenter.org/system/tdf/private/api136_0.pdf?file=1&type=node&id=37028, (Date of Accession: 18.11.2021).

[3] ““Central Asia Plus Japan” Dialogue Held in Sofia, Bulgaria (On the Occasion of the 12th Meeting of the OSCE Ministerial Council)”, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, https://www.mofa.go.jp/announce/announce/2004/12/1207-2.html, (Date of Accession: 18.11.2021).

[4] ““Central Asia Plus Japan” Dialogue”, Minisrty of Foreign Affairs of Japan, https://www.mofa.go.jp/region/europe/dialogue/index.html, (Date of Accession: 18.11.2021).

[5] Paul Goble, “Japan Increases Involvement in Central Asia”, The Jamestown Foundation, 18(139), https://jamestown.org/program/japan-increases-involvement-in-central-asia/, (Date of Accession: 18.11.2021).

[6] “Central Asia as a Corridor of Peace and Stability”, Minisrty of Foreign Affairs of Japan, https://www.mofa.go.jp/region/europe/speech0606.html, (Date of Accession: 18.11.2021).

[7] “Foreign Minister Kono Attends the Seventh Foreign Ministers’ Meeting of the “Central Asia Plus Japan” Dialogue”, Minisrty of Foreign Affairs of Japan, https://www.mofa.go.jp/region/europe/eu/page6e_000187.html, (Date of Accession: 18.11.2021).

[8] “Kazakhstan Trade Balance, Exports and Imports by Country and Region 2018”, WITS, https://wits.worldbank.org/CountryProfile/en/Country/KAZ/Year/2018/TradeFlow/EXPIMP, (Date of Accession: 18.11.2021).

[9] “Uzbekistan Trade Balance, Exports and Imports by Country and Region 2018”, WITS, https://wits.worldbank.org/CountryProfile/en/Country/UZB/Year/2018/TradeFlow/EXPIMP, (Date of Accession: 18.11.2021).

Emrah KAYA
ANKASAM Dış Politika Uzmanı Emrah KAYA, Akdeniz Üniversitesi Uluslararası İlişkiler Bölümü’nden mezundur. Yüksek lisans derecesini 2014 yılında Süleyman Demirel Üniversitesi Uluslararası İlişkiler Bölümü’nde hazırladığı “Latin Amerika'da Sol Liderlerin Yükselişi ve Uluslararası Politikaya Etkisi: Venezuela-Bolivya Örneği (Rising of the Left Leaders in Latin America and its Effects to International Politics: An Example of Venezuela-Bolivia)” başlıklı teziyle almıştır. Doktora eğitimine yine Süleyman Demirel Üniversitesi Uluslararası İlişkiler Bölümü’nde devam eden KAYA, tez aşamasındadır. Başlıca çalışma alanları; Orta Asya, Latin Amerika, Güvenlik, Terörizm, Barış Süreçleri’dir. KAYA’nın çeşitli kitap ve dergilerde çalışmalarının yanı sıra ulusal ve uluslararası medya kuruluşlarında analizleri yayınlanmıştır.