Dobrinskaya Olga, What is the Central Asia plus Japan' Dialogue about?
28.11.2012 .
Olga Dobrinskaya,
PhD, Centre for Japanese Studies,
Institute of Eastern Studies, Academy of Science of Russia


The fourth ministerial meeting of the "Central Asia plus Japan" Dialogue ("the Dialogue") took place in Tokyo in November. This multilateral forum was initiated by Japan eight years ago, and it plays a significant role in understanding Japan's involvement in the region. The rationale behind the establishment of the Dialogue can be traced back to the changing geopolitical landscape at the beginning of the 2000s. After the terror attacks of 9.11, Japan was faced with new challenges and tasks. First, Japan recognized international terrorism as a threat to its national security. The country began to assist the counter-terrorism coalition and took part in reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan. The focus of Japan's attention naturally shifted to the republics of Central Asia, three of which share borders with Afghanistan.

Moreover the growing regional role of the USA, which is Japan's main military and political ally, resulted in a new wave of attention towards Central Asia. In April 2002, speaking at the Boao forum for Asia, former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi called for greater cooperation with Central Asia. Soon afterwards, a business delegation called the ‘Silk Road energy mission' headed to the region to discuss prospects for possible energy cooperation.

Third, the establishment of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in June 2001 may be perceived as an important motive for the revision of Japan's strategy in the region. The emergence of this new center of power highlighted the necessity of strengthening Japan's position in the region.

The idea of reorganizing the Japanese presence in Central Asia has been taking shape for quite a long time. Soon after the beginning of the counter-terror operation in Afghanistan, some scholars pointed out the need to revise Silk Road diplomacy [1]. The initiatives by Koizumi began (prompted? accelerated?) the modernization of Japan's foreign policy towards Central Asia. Methods of fostering relationships with Central Asian countries were discussed energetically from Spring through Autumn 2003. As result, the understanding emerged that regional integration based on the pattern of ‘ASEAN plus three' would considerably strengthen both the political status and economic potential of the states of Central Asia. This understanding soon materialized in the form of a proposal to establish a forum under the name "Central Asia plus Japan" [2]. Thus, in line with Japanese traditions of "nemawashi" (laying the groundwork for decision-making), the idea of the Dialogue was initially worked out at the level of experts and bureaucracy. 

Formally, this initiative was proposed by then foreign minister Yoriko Kawaguchi at her speech in Tashkent on August 26, 2004. Two days later, the first meeting in the new format took place in Astana. Its main result was the announcement of the principles of the Dialogue, such as respect for diversity, competition, coordination, and open cooperation, and setting goals which included the objectives Japan had been pursuing before (strengthening of peace, stability, and democracy in Central Asia, consolidation of the economic base, and assistance with reforms and social development) as well as a new agenda encompassing the development of intra-regional ties and cooperation on regional and global issues. The Dialogue was created as a venue for discussing political and economic issues as well as security concerns shared by the countries of the region. The new initiative was directed at the consolidation of ties between the states of the region with Japan playing the role of an external force stimulating the process of integration. 

Specific spheres of future cooperation were officially documented at the second ministerial meeting of the Dialogue in June 2006 with the adoption of the Action Plan. It consisted of five parts: political dialogue and international cooperation, regional cooperation, business promotion, intellectual dialogue, and cultural and human exchange. This marked the emergence of a permanent agenda as a guideline for further cooperation within the Dialogue. Additionally, the formal framework was strengthened by an ‘informal track' - an intellectual dialogue where preliminary discussions are held on issues and perspectives of cooperation, producing recommendations that are later included in the diplomatic agenda. 

The second ministerial meeting was conducted according to a new vision of the region put forward by then foreign minister Taro Aso with the announcement of the concept of ‘Central Asia as a corridor of peace and stability'. The main features of this concept are a broad approach to the region, taking into account Afghanistan and Pakistan, support for open regional cooperation, and partnership based on universal values (democracy, a market economy, human rights, and the rule of law). Based on this concept, the corridor of peace and stability was geographically outlined as a wide geographic area stretching beyond the traditional borders of the region, and its creation would be made possible by the construction of an infrastructure network (the so-called ‘southern route' of transportation and a pipeline connecting Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan). This broad approach to the region has much in common with the US concept of a ‘Greater Central Asia'. 

This new vision of Central Asia placed the region within a greater concept called ‘The Arc of freedom and prosperity', which was outlined by Taro Aso in November 2006 as one of the pillars of Japanese foreign policy under the Liberal Democratic party. This concept envisioned the creation of a chain of states adhering to universal values. The emphasis on the promotion of Western values as well as the use of the term ‘the arc of freedom and prosperity' (which evoked the notion of the ‘arc of instability' used in US foreign policy language at that time) were interpreted by some observers as an intention on the part of Japan and the USA to distance Central Asia from Russia and China.

The concept of the 'Arc of freedom and prosperity' turned out to be quite controversial and did not last long as a pillar of Japanese foreign policy. After a new foreign minister was appointed, it gradually fell out of use. Taro Aso later revisited the Central Asian theme as Prime Minister, however. In June 2009, he proposed the concept of the ‘Eurasian crossroads', which he himself called a modern version of the Silk Road. It was seen as a complex of transportation routes going from Central Asia southward via Afghanistan to the Arabian sea and westward through the countries of the Caucasus to Europe [3]. In fact this approach was an extended version of the ‘corridor of peace and stability' as it united Central Asia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Caucasus. The new concept was not further developed, however, and against the backdrop of constant shakeups within the foreign ministry, the dynamics of this relationship with Central Asia were lost. 

As the Democratic party came to power in Japan, however, the attention to Central Asia again intensified, mainly because of its importance to the stabilization of Afghanistan. The former foreign minister Katsuya Okada demonstrated his intention to breathe new life into the Dialogue as he announced he was going to put the mechanism of the ministerial meetings back on track. In August 2010, the third ministerial meeting took place after a four-year pause. The contents of the discussions reflected Japan's new strategy towards Afghanistan. 

First, this new strategy can be seen with regards to the issue of security in Afghanistan. At the 2010 ministerial meeting, Japan announced its intention to boost assistance in such spheres as the fight against terrorism and drug control as well as providing loans for the reconstruction of the infrastructure in the region. Japan has been assisting projects focusing on border control, the prevention of drug trafficking on the border between Afghanistan and Tajikistan, and the rehabilitation of the transportation routes connecting Afghanistan with bordering countries. 

Second, Japan has repeatedly underscored the importance of the economic development of Central Asia as an economic entity for the reconstruction and development of Afghanistan. With this aim in mind, Tokyo hosted the first multilateral business forum for Central Asia in July 2011. Measures aimed at the development of the region as a whole were one of the main topics of this forum. 

The fourth ministerial meeting was also carried out in line with this regional perspective. At this meeting, Japan introduced a new assistance package of 700 million dollars to be distributed in five spheres. First of all, Japan will be seeking a more robust economic presence in the region by promoting trade and investment, in return expecting the Central Asian states to make efforts towards establishing a better investment climate. Additionally, cooperation in the field of the environment, energy efficiency and the use of alternative energy, where Japan has become a world leader, is emphasized. Much attention is paid to projects in the sphere of 'human security,' which has long been one of the core pillars of Japan's foreign policy. Assistance will also be provided for projects focusing on the stabilization of Afghanistan-projects which are especially critical now that the coalition troops are preparing to leave the country. Another sphere of assistance will be cooperation in disaster prevention, where Japan has rich experience in national and international cooperation. The structure of this assistance package will enable Japan to pursue several goals: upgrading the level of economic interaction with the region, contributing to the stabilization of Afghanistan, and at the same time promoting regional collaboration in the field of nonmilitary security (for example, climate change, ‘human security') which helps maintain and enhance its reputation as a global civilian power. 

During the eight years since the Dialogue began, Japan has been able to significantly enhance its presence in Central Asia and develop a multidimensional relationship with the region. At the same time, this framework is not a substitute for the set of bilateral relationships that continue to play a substantial role in handling issues such as access to the natural resources of the region which are also critical to Tokyo.

The multilateral forum, moreover, does not always implement its stated plans. Although participants agreed in 2006 to examine the possibility of organizing a summit of the Dialogue, this has not yet happened. Furthermore, it is not always possible to maintain a consistent and stable Dialogue schedule, as demonstrated by the failure to hold a ministerial meeting planned for 2008. The legal basis regulating the work of the Dialogue has yet to be created. The functioning of this mechanism is also being affected by such factors as geographical distance, the absence of shared security concerns, and weak economic links. It is fair to assume that Japan is acting rather cautiously in Central Asia, keeping in mind possible reactions by Russia and China. This might be one of the reasons why its initiatives in the region have a certain degree of flexibility and why the existing multilateral framework is called a ‘dialogue,' emphasizing its focus on discussion.

Japan's relations with Central Asia can be regarded as an optimal example of carrying out its strategy of 'soft power', using nonmilitary means in pursuing its national interests. Japan's attention to social and economic issues, focus on humanitarian problems, and readiness to mobilize its financial might to tackle these problems, together with its noninterference in the domestic policies of the regional states, indeed evoke the sympathies of the countries of Central Asia. 

The goal of establishing the multilateral dialogue was to change Japan's status in the region, making it a participant in debates on regional issues and development prospects of Central Asian states. Tokyo's long-term interests include establishing an economic entity in the region, and the functioning of the Dialogue will certainly contribute to this process. The multilateral framework established by the Dialogue is thus a core element in realizing Japan's strategy in the region. Specifically for "Prudent Solutions"

[1] Gaiko forum. Winter 2002. P.9.

[2] Akio Kawato. What is Japan up to in Central Asia.//Japan's Silk Road diplomacy: paving the road ahead. 2008. P.22.

[3] Japan's diplomacy: ensuring security and prosperity. Speech by H.E.Mr.Taro Aso, Prime minister of Japan. 30 June, 2009.- www.kantei.go.jp

: http://analitika.org/en/ca/geopolitics/20-what-is-the-central-asia-plus-japan-dialogue-about.html
( 26.12.2012 . )