October 22 was marked by the beginning of a five-day trip of Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe across six Central Asian states. According to the Nikkei Asian Review, during his visits to Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Mongolia, Abe was accompanied by 50 representatives of 50 major Japanese companies that sought opportunities to invest up 2 trillion yen (16.6 billion dollars) in the region. The contracts that were signed during the visit along with memorandums of intent to develop trade and economic cooperation with the countries of Central Asia, may bring, according to the Japanese Prime Minister, up to 30 trillion yen (250 billion dollars) in profits to the Japanese business giants until 2020.
There’s little doubt that this trip was designed to fulfill Japan’s desire to strengthen its presence in Central Asia, by obtaining access to its natural resources and countering expanding Chinese influence. The Japanese government is convinced that this step will strengthen Japan’s energy security as well, which will reduce its dependence on nuclear power.
Shinzo Abe is determined to compete in the struggle for regional markets with major international players. A particular emphasis has been put on the gas industry, in particular, the signing of a memorandum of understanding between Japanese companies and Turkmengaz, along with an agreement on the development of the Galkynysh Gas Field that will be supplying four countries – Turkmenistan Afghanistan, Pakistan and India via a pipeline that is to be constructed in the foreseeable future. Implementation of this ambitious project will make the delivery of up to 30 billion cubic meters of gas to new consumers a reality. To get the project up and running Japan is offering new technologies and considerable financial resources to Turkmenistan. Two state-owned Japanese banks have already expressed their willingness to provide 2 billion dollars for this cause.
However, Tokyo’s desire to get a more solid footing in Turkmenistan will inevitably lead to the aggravation of relations between Ashgabat and Beijing, as this Central Asian republic has already signed an agreement with the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) on the implementation of this project, and the contract doesn’t allow third parties entry into it. The cooperation between Turkmengaz and CNPC has already resulted in the construction of a new pipeline, linking Turkmenistan and western provinces of China. The pipeline with a full capacity of 20 billion cubic meters a year stretches across Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.
It should be noted that Japan’s attempts to push China out of the deal are hardly accidental, since there’s the presence of strong Washingto influence behind many of Japan’s moves. It’s just enough to mention that Turkmenistan has repeatedly postponed the construction of the joint pipeline with China, allegedly due to the situation in Afghanistan. However, Turkmenistan’s position has drastically changed after the visit of the Minister of Foreign Affairs Raşit Meredow to the United States. After this visit Ashgabat decided to hand over all the rights to Tokyo, while US military contractors took over the gas fields on the conditions that they would be allowed to use an airfield near the Turkmen-Afghan border. This airfield will be soon transformed into a military base, on the conditions that the US will handle security matters while the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India pipeline is being constructed.
Shinzo Abe’s visit to Kazakhstan was dictated by interest in the hydrocarbon and uranium resources of the republic, especially in a situation where Japan was forced to increase imports of these natural resources. Kazakhstan possesses the second largest uranium reserves in the world, therefore Japan is determined to challenge foreign companies in the area in the long term. In this context Toshiba has joined in competition against Russia’s Rosatom on the construction of a nuclear power plant in Kazakhstan, offering the delivery of a reactor with a total capacity of 1 gigawatt at the price of 3.7 billion dollars. The construction of this nuclear plant should begin in 2018 and be completed by 2030, with the possibility of producing energy between 2023-2024.
In Uzbekistan, Japanese companies are planning to build a gas processing plant, signing an agreement on 110 billion yen (about 917 million dollars). In addition, representatives of one of the participating Japanese companies have already started negotiations on the establishment of optical communication infrastructure in the country.
While covering the visit of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to Central Asia, the Japanese media emphasizes its “historical dimension”, as it is the first large-scale tour around the region since 2006, when a similar trip was carried out by the the leader of the Japanese government – Junichiro Koizumi. Japan has no long-term relationships established with these regional powers, therefore all the preparations for the visit were made very carefully, with even the Prime Minister’s plane custom painted to underline the importance of the trip.
There is no doubt that Tokyo is putting a particular emphasis on the development and strengthening of relations with the countries of Central Asia, however the head of the Japanese government must ask himself what are the consequences of this trip and will it lead to the further aggravation of Japan’s relations with a number of other regional players, especially China.
Valeriy Kulikov, expert politologist, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.