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U.S.-Japan and Russia-China: fighters of different weight classes on Central Asian tatami

John Kerry and Shinzo Abe. Photo: investing.com

The first visit of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to Central Asia is due to start on October 30. During his three-day visit, Kerry will tour all the five countries in the region where he will most probably hold similar talks on the security and bilateral cooperation.  The visit to Uzbekistan stands apart. Kerry will hold a meeting with foreign ministers of all the five states and will propose and, in fact, launch a new format of relations C5+1m where 1 is Washington and C5 are the Central Asian countries.

The idea is not new. Recently, the West has been trying to get its message across the post-Soviet countries: it is more convenient for it (the West) and more beneficial for them (the Central Asian countries) if it perceives them as a single region. It does not mean that, for instance, Georgia in the South Caucasus should refuse from its sovereignty in favor of a kind of conditional South Caucasian confederation (something of the kind once happened in history), or Uzbekistan does the same in favor of “Turkestan.” Perhaps, it is convenient for the West, but how it can be beneficial for the subjects of any region is not clear, at least, so far.  Furthermore, considering the relations between some of these countries, it is hard to imagine them as single whole even conditionally. What else is behind the new format of dialogue will come to light soon. Let’s wait and see.

It is much more interesting to analyze John Kerry’s visit to the region in the light of the recent visit of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on the same route, including a preliminary tour to Mongolia. The prime minister signed contracts in all the five capital cities, voiced generous messages and promises of investments, and a sudden decision to involve Tokyo into TAPI (Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India) gas pipeline project and in the development of Galkynysh gas field - a kind of sensation.  Japan is overcautious in such actions. It never wastes money. Japan never joins risky projects and rarely makes initiatives at least beyond its borders.  Japan could join TAPI amid the current situation in the region only if it was provided with guarantees and seriously encouraged to do it.

For instance, by joining the development of a big and promising gas field, Tokyo can easily claim a share and get it by means of the known schemes used in the energy sector. It is timely, as Japan refused from nuclear energy and shifted to safer one after Fukushima disaster.

Yet, experts see a the political component in the situation.  The fact is that China claimed a share in Galkynysh project and the matter seemed to have been settled.  Dosym Satpayev, a well-known Kazakh political analyst, Director at Risk Assessment Group, an Almaty-based think-tank, says Japan is concerned over recent flurry of activity from China in the region. Tokyo’s discontent has actually reached such a high level that it decided to take steps affecting Beijing’s interests.

Expert in Central Asia and Middle East Alexander Knyazev suggests that the visits of John Kerry and Shinzo Abe are studied together. Looking deep into the issue, one can see that the interests of not only China but also Russia are affected. Japanese prime minister signed an agreement with Astana on the construction of a nuclear power plant in Kazakhstan by Japanese corporations. A similar agreement Astana has with Moscow.  Kyrgyz expert in infrastructure development in Central Eurasia, economist Kubat Rakhimov told EADaily: “It is very interesting who Kazakhstan will choose – Moscow or Tokyo? Astana may decide to build at once two nuclear power plants. Such an option is studied now and there is nothing tragic in it.” 

However, Knyazev says, “the visit of the Japanese prime minister to Central Asia may become a landmark visit that will turn the region from China and Russia.” It does not mean that Washington and Tokyo made a certain pact to bring Central Asia out of the influence of Russia and China and gain foothold in the region. However, the situational coincidence of interests and the emerging “doubles game” are quite probable. “The West’s goal is probably to prevent Russia’s integration initiatives and China’s economic projects by the hands of allies. Washington has managed to ‘distribute’ the responsibilities: destabilization of the region – to Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and in a less degree to Turkey; creation of economic barriers – to other allies, Japan, in the given case,” Knyazev told EADaily’s correspondent. 

Dosym Satpayev certainly agrees with such perspective.  “What is happening now can be assessed as the United States’ response to the recent flurry of activity from China and Russia in Central Asia, Middle East,” he says.  China may arouse more concerns as it does not conceal its intention to establish not only economy but also military and political relations with the countries in the region.

Kubat Rakhimov has indirectly confirmed that Japan and China may start competing in Central Asia. He draws attention to a fragment from Shinzo Abe’s visit to Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. These less wealthy countries in Central Asia mainly anticipate loans from Japan. “Few have noticed that the many-billion loans to Bishkek and Dushanbe were promised in yens, the national currency of Japan. It can be considered as a specific response to China that is generously distributing loans and grants in yuans in the region.  Japan hints that it will not be less active and simultaneously increases the reliability of its currency,” Rakhimov says.

Alexander Knyazev says Central Asia is turning into an arena of colliding interests and competition of leading powers.  “General geopolitical situation in the region is taking shape with the growing discrepancies between Big Power and regional ones and the fight for geopolitical orientation and natural resources of Central Asia,” the expert says.

Dosym Satpayev  agrees with Knyazev’s views and compares the situation with “a tatami with fighters of different weight classes that attract the attention of many.” Russia, naturally, sees what is taking place in the region and needs to improve its deteriorated relations with some countries there, mainly Turkmenistan.  It was not for nothing that Russia officially offered assistance to Ashkhabad in defending its borders. However, Ashkhabad had already requested assistance from Washington. How the situation will change is not clear yet.

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