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Regional Countries, Japan Agree On Action Plan

Japan and four Central Asian countries held a one-day foreign ministerial meeting today in Tokyo, agreeing on an action plan for regional cooperation. The plan includes a call for improving border management to prevent the proliferation of terrorism and drugs. It also envisions a number of other initiatives. Observers believe Japan is trying to position itself as a new regional player but will other, more powerful regional power brokers let it achieve its purported ambitions?

PRAGUE, June 5, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Dubbed "Central Asia plus Japan Dialogue," today's meeting brought together the foreign ministers of Japan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.

Kazakhstan was represented by Deputy Foreign Minister Kairat Abdrakhmanov, while Afghan Foreign Minister Rangin Dadfar Spanta attended the meeting as an observer.

Greater Cooperation

The Japanese and Central Asian envoys approved an action plan that stresses the need for enhanced cooperation in fighting drug trafficking and poverty.

The Japanese Foreign Ministry says in a statement carried by the Kyodo news agency that the plan also calls for cooperation in fostering human rights and political dialogue.

A post-meeting statement says participants "acknowledged the importance of promoting democratic societies and market economies, improving living standards, [eradicating] terrorism and poverty, and continuing efforts to protect human rights in Central Asia."

The five also agreed to boost regional trade and improve Central Asia's infrastructure.

Infrastructure Improvements

Under the plan, Tokyo is scheduled to help Tajikistan renovate its road network as part of plans to link Central Asia to southern Afghanistan and make it easier to transport oil and natural gas across the region.

Today's statement underlines the importance of Afghanistan being associated with regional-development projects. This was the second such meeting between Japan and Central Asian nations.

The previous one took place in Kazakhstan in August 2004 and also included Turkmenistan. Participants then agreed to coordinate antiterrorism measures and improve energy-development cooperation.

In a speech delivered at the Japan National Press Club on June 1, Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Aso said Tokyo saw Central Asia as a region of growing importance, in part because of its vast natural resources.

Aso also said the region was the scene of increasing competition among world powers. This, he said, was where Japan could play an important role because it believes that Central Asia should not be "forced to submit to the interests of outside countries as a result of a 'New Great Game'" and that "the leading role must be played by none other than the countries of Central Asia themselves."

John Swenson-Wright is a lecturer in modern Japanese studies at Cambridge University's East Asia Institute.

"Since the 1990s, the Japanese government has seen itself as being able to play a brokering role [in Afghanistan]. The Japanese government played a very important role in putting together an international coalition to deal with the post-conflict situation in Afghanistan," Swesnson-Wright said. "It was very important in mobilizing international support to provide a substantial amount of financial assistance to Afghanistan. And this is an area where I think Japan -- because of its, in a sense, ambivalent relationship to the West and towards Asia is uniquely well placed to act in a mediating capacity."

A Counterweight To Russia, China

Yet, Swenson-Wright says Japan's willingness to seek a more active role in Central Asia is also motivated by specific geopolitical concerns.

"With the emergence of China as a major player Japan is increasingly concerned that it may be eclipsed, [that] it may see its own influence in the region to some extent challenged,"he said. "I suspect what we're seeing here is an effort on the part of the Japanese foreign-policy establishment -- particularly the Foreign Ministry -- to continue to underline the importance of taking Japan seriously [in the region] and see that its own interests are well represented."

It is still questionable whether China and the region's other major player -- Russia -- will let Japan have a greater say in Central Asian affairs.

Beijing and Moscow are the two leading forces behind the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a regional grouping that also comprises the four Central Asian states that were represented at today's meeting in Tokyo. Russia and China make no secret that they want to reinforce the SCO with a view to keeping the United States away from the region.

Some Central Asian countries may see Japan's Central Asia policy as running counter to their own interests.

Rashid Ghani is an independent political expert based in Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan. He says he believes Central Asian countries will welcome Tokyo's efforts insofar as they remain strictly limited to economic cooperation.

Tokyo's Economic Interests

"[Japan's efforts] will be received positively only if they meet the interests of Central Asian states, including those of Tajikistan," Ghani said. "If these efforts are pursuing additional political aims, then they will not meet the interests of Central Asian countries, Tajikistan included."

Swenson-Wright of Cambridge University believes Japan, which depends almost entirely on the Middle East for its oil needs and is vying with China for access to the vast energy resources of eastern Siberia, is primarily interested in Central Asia's economic potential.

But Tokyo may yet become a part of the very world-power games it is officially denouncing.

"Counterbalancing [China's efforts to get access to Russia's energy resources] by making diplomatic initiatives reaching out to Central Asian republics makes sense politically," Swenson-Wright says.

"In that sense it is perhaps not entirely different from the 'Great Game' that we saw [in Central Asia] at the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries," he added.


(RFE/RL 06.vi.06)

 
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