Mr. Abe Goes to Central Asia: An Opportunity for Advancing Tokyo’s New Thinking

The Japanese prime minister sees a valuable opportunity in looking west to the old Silk Road.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s diplomatic prowess was put to the test as he entered uncharted territory last week: Central Asia. Beginning October 22, Mr. Abe became the first Japanese premier to visit all five Central Asian countries—Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, kicking off his trip in Mongolia for good measure—largely in hopes of boosting economic ties. In many ways, Japan has perfected the art of commercial diplomacy, but the stakes have never been higher along the ancient Silk Road. China launched its much-touted “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR) initiative earlier this year, and Beijing’s regional clout threatens to severely constrain Tokyo’s ambitions. However, Mr. Abe has the potential to leverage his trip as an opportunity to boost Japan’s role abroad, not at the expense of but as an alternative to the traditional offers coming from Moscow and now Beijing.

The fact that it took a Japanese prime minister this long to visit Central Asia, and that President Obama has never visited most of these countries, is itself telling of just how insular and off-limits this region has seemed to all non-neighboring regional powers. After these republics were liberated from the USSR, a half-hearted attempt on the part of Americans and Europeans to engage through an optimistic but woefully underprepared Turkey led to deep disillusionment with Western institutions and rhetoric. Russia’s “reinvigorated” Eurasian Union focused on its near abroad and China’s development of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (and more recently, its “one belt, one road” initiative paired with its new infrastructure development bank) have never been balanced by a coherent or serious alternative Western plan. Attempts such as the European Union’s “Eastern Partnership” or Turkey’s “Turkic Council” have never been fully fleshed out, while Washington’s own “New Silk Road” initiative has never moved beyond rhetoric. Despite the broader geographic challenges and mental blocks often associated with this region of the world, the concept of a coherent and connected Turkic world stretching from the Adriatic to the Great Wall along the ancient Silk Road has a practical logic and useful framework for partnerships, which has never been fully explored.

Mr. Abe’s economic ambitions for Central Asia reflect Japan’s geopolitical imperatives for the region. From Tokyo’s perspective, the region is critical to Japan’s energy and resource supply diversification efforts. Through initiatives such as the “Central Asia plus Japan Dialogue,” Tokyo has maintained regional ties largely revolving around development aids and infrastructure investments. In fact, Japan has been one of the largest donors to Central Asia. Mr. Abe’s trip, however, seems to be going beyond this traditional focus, by including at least fifty Japanese companies and organizations that are encouraged to invest in a variety of business projects—another set of firsts for Japan. This proactive joint public-private approach is being welcomed throughout Central Asia as precisely what the region had been hoping for.

China is quickly becoming the region’s de facto patron, with $240 billion announced to finance massive infrastructure projects as part of its OBOR initiative. From the Amu Darya in Turkmenistan to Khorgos in Kazakhstan, Beijing is now building everything from gas pipelines to cities. China is now the largest economic player in Central Asia, with its regional trade skyrocketing from $1.8 billion in 2000 to $50 billion in 2013. This contrasts sharply with Japan-Central Asia trade, which still hovers below $1.8 billion as of 2013.

But there may still be room for Japan in Central Asia. As a strong Western ally and still the third-largest economy in the world, Japan has several advantages over the Chinese. Tokyo launched its “Partnership for Quality Infrastructure” in May 2015, showcasing Japan’s technological edge, in response to China’s OBOR. Moreover, while China’s growing influence has engendered mixed feelings in Central Asia, Japan enjoys a relatively positive image. Japan’s soft power to China’s hard power, however, can only go so far—as Indonesia’s latest choice of Chinese high-speed railway shows. The lopsided Sino-Japanese geoeconomic balance in Central Asia augurs ill for Tokyo’s economics-first approach to the region. But there is still hope for Japan, not as a unilateral player, but as a leader for further multilateral and American cooperation.