China and Russia have been front-and-center in the Central Asia conversation.
Meanwhile, Moscow keeps trying to maintain its decaying influence in the same region, worried that its sometimes-friend-sometimes-adversary China is getting a little too involved there.
But there’s another notable player getting into Central Asia: Japan.
Last week Tokyo announced that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will visit five Central Asian countries in October, which is significant as the last time a Japanese Prime Minister toured the region was back in 2006.
Government officials stated that Abe’s trip is “part of efforts to strengthen economic relations with the resource-rich region,” according to The Japan Times. And this wouldn’t be Tokyo’s first attempt: In 2014 Japan and Turkmenistan signed a $US1.7 billion deal to build a gas-to-liquids plant.
Furthermore, Japan’s interest in the region could have underlying geopolitical reasons.
“The visit could also counter China’s growing clout in the region, as well as boost leverage with Russia, according to the officials,” as cited by The Japan Times. “They noted Moscow is concerned by Beijing’s surging influence in Central Asia, which Russia hopes to keep within its sphere of influence.”
“If Japan competes with China [in Central Asia], Russia would welcome it,” one official said, according to The Japan Times. “As a result, Japan would have one diplomatic card [to play] against Russia.”
Still, others maintain that it’s just about economics: Japan is looking for alternative energy markets and warm water ports.
“Japan’s Eurasia strategy is two-pronged. First, Japan is stepping up its technological investment in Central Asian energy markets to compensate for the abrupt end of its reliance on nuclear power. Second, Japan wants to prevent China’s One Belt, One Road project from monopolizing control over the region’s warm water ports,” argues Samuel Ramani,
Oxford masters student and journalist, in the Diplomat.
“Analysis of the recent rise in Japanese involvement in Central Asia should be detached from broader geopolitics, as Japan’s interests are in competition with those of both China and Russia,” he added.
Nevertheless, regardless of the reason, it’s clear that Japan’s taking Central Asia seriously — and Abe’s trip could be something to watch come October.