Japan is a major East Asian partner which is interlocked in a US strategic alliance and has a history of rivalry with China. As one of three major Asia-Pacific powers, Japan tried to make its presence felt in Central Asia — and it went about doing this in a non-obtrusive fashion. It did so by extending economic aid of over two billion dollars to Central Asian Republics (CARs) after they gained independence in 1992. In August 2004, it took the ‘Central Asia Plus Japan Initiative’ with foreign ministers of Japan and Shanghai Cooperation Organisation member states (SCO) meeting in Kazakhstan. A similar meeting took place in Tokyo in early June 2006 with the objective of direct political access to SCO members, independently of the SCO and institutionalising mechanism for dialogue with the CARs.
Aiming for greater integration through economic development and aid and posing as a benevolent patron of economic aid and development, it desires to neutralise any ‘strategic designs’ of Russia and China.
Japan views the SCO with a modicum of wariness, if not outright alarm. Given the perceived ‘anti-US’ focus of the SCO, Japan is intently watching its military policies for its own security. For example, the Japanese media has often commented widely on this with some disquiet. According to it, the SCO is emerging as an “exclusivist organisation” aimed solely at keeping the US “excluded from Asia.” China is perceived to be using the SCO to “corner the energy supplies of Central Asia.” Japan could not remain “unconcerned” with these moves and would like the CARs to prevail upon the SCO members to make it an “open organisation”. “Originally founded” to combat terrorism, enhance border and military security, curb drug and narcotic traffic and economic cooperation, the SCO was seen as promoting “bloc formation” against the US.
Since Japan is a sea power it could not “remain indifferent” to the emergence of a “closed regional association” that links it with pipelines in the region. In order to offset this eventuality it needs to “deepen” and increase “close cooperation” with the CARs.
Moreover, Central Asia is a region which is seen as being of “growing importance” and a focus of Great Power rivalry. In the Japanese formulation, the leading role must be played by countries of the region and not by outside major powers. Moreover, it thinks that its enhanced role could bring about dilution of the SCO and promote regional integration.
This role, in its view, could also find encouragement from the US and the EU.
However, Japan faces some difficulties: lack of physical proximity as well as ideological affinity with Central Asia. Besides, Russia and China are seen as major competitors. Japanese circumspection persists about a little-known region for making major economic investments. In addition, the Japanese Constitution still does not permit any major assertive role for the armed forces.
However, this reservation is being reviewed in light of recent developments in the region. Japan has also been extending special assistance to Afghanistan through reconstruction and rehabilitation of its war-devastated infrastructure. Also, the SCO has not recommended any expansion of the UN Security Council to include Japan and India as permanent members.
Like China and India, Japan is an energy-dependent country; hence, it would not like any big power monopolisation of the region. As a sea power, it remains concerned about any “regional associations” linked by inland pipelines to Central Asia and would desire an “open regional cooperation.”
Published in The Express Tribune, November 10th, 2010.