Tokyo is Showing the Way for Washington in Central Asia
Prime Minister Abe this week became the first Japanese premier to visit all five Central Asian countries — Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan — plus Mongolia. President Obama has never visited most of these countries and neither had a Japanese premier until now, indicating how insular and remote this region has seemed to all non-neighboring regional powers.
The stakes have never been higher along the ancient Silk Road. Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, little attention has been paid to this region outside of the context of the West’s ongoing misadventures in Afghanistan. As a result, Russia has maintained its disproportionate influence in its “near abroad” through its Eurasian Economic Union and economic interdependence with its former post-Soviet states. China’s much-touted “One Belt One Road” (OBOR) development strategy and framework for connecting Eurasia has been launched in conjunction with its new infrastructure development bank that complements its already thriving Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a Eurasian political, economic, and military organization dominated by Russia and China. In light of these ambitious Eurasian initiatives, attempts such as the European Union’s “Eastern Partnership” or Turkey’s “Turkic Council” initiatives seem half-hearted, while Washington’s own “New Silk Road” initiative has never moved beyond rhetoric.
Having only emerged from independence 25 years ago, there is little desire in Central Asia for “big brothers” of the type offered by China and Russia, but a strong desire for partnerships and a diversification in international relations. Given the unrealized potential at the heart of Eurasia, it’s unfortunate that Washington and its allies by extension have tended to only pay perfunctory lip service to the region and be reactive to the grand initiatives from Moscow and Beijing rather than proactive about them. Interestingly, Western and Japanese companies — particularly construction companies, defense industrialists, energy groups, and telecommunications companies — have led the way in Eurasia by seeing potential through setting up operations that are not connected to Moscow or Beijing but instead to Istanbul or directly to their main headquarters. Leading with its private sector, Tokyo seems to be re-imagining the region around these existing realities to better serve its commercial interests and potentially set a new example for its Western allies.
Abe’s visit comes at a pivotal moment, having staked his political future on the success of Abenomics at home and national security reforms abroad to convince the world of Japan’s “Proactive Contributions to Peace.” Seventy years after the Second World War, there is no more fertile ground for Tokyo than in Central Asia. Abe’s arrival in Central Asia with over 50 Japanese companies and organizations that are investing in a variety of business projects to solidify nascent ties of commercial diplomacy demonstrates a proactive approach to public–private partnerships that is precisely what the region needs.
Despite the broader geographic challenges and mental blocks often associated with this region of the world, the concept of a coherent and connected Turkic Eurasian world stretching from the Adriatic to the Great Wall along the ancient Silk Road has a practical logic and useful framework for partnerships that has never been fully explored. This is due predominately to the lack of a clear international champion and outside meddling. Therefore Abe’s entrance to Central Asia should be welcomed and supported by Washington. Yet Beijing’s regional clout threatens to constrain Tokyo’s ambitions severely as Moscow watches warily. Until Washington takes Central Asia more seriously, the main geo-economic and geopolitical center of gravity will tilt towards China despite Japan’s best efforts.
Polling shows that Japan enjoys a positive image in Central Asia. It is a modern society that has not lost its identity to the West and that serves as an inspiration to many countries in the region. As a result, Central Asians and Turks continually rank Japanese brands and companies as the most desirable business partners, perhaps because Japan does not enjoy any hard power edge over Central Asia or its more geopolitically powerful neighbors. Additionally, in contrast to frosty relations between the United States and Russia, Tokyo has maintained relatively good ties with Moscow, particularly given that Abe and Putin get along on a personal level. Precisely due to Japan’s own territorial issues with Russia and its role as a neighboring state, Tokyo understands Central Asians’ sensitivities in dealing with Moscow as it has demonstrated in its own diplomatic balancing act on Ukraine.
Despite Abe’s diplomatic prowess and new proactive approach to Japanese foreign policy, Tokyo alone cannot replace Russia or challenge China’s more significant investments. Arguably Central Asia is a strategic opportunity no less significant to the transatlantic community than Eastern Europe’s reintegration. Yet nearly 25 years after independence, the lack of coherent relations with this region exposes one of the great failings of Western leadership in the 21st century. Ethnic and linguistic connections within the Turkic Eurasian world have always created a natural base and heritage for cooperation, but have proven weaker than pan-Turkic ideologues have hoped, in the aftermath of both the Second World War and the Cold War.
Today as Turkey struggles with its own identity and place in the world, Japan represents an inspiring model and perfect partner as a non-Western democracy that has maintained its traditional culture and society as a stalwart member of the international community. As Turkey hosts the G-20 summit next month and Japan takes over the reins of the G-7 next year, there is much greater cooperation than initially meets the eye and a renewed interest in Tokyo of working with Turkey and the broader “Turkic World.” With its cutting-edge technology and disaster preparedness already leading the way in the region, it will be critical for Japan to institutionalize and convert the goodwill it enjoys and use Abe’s visit to reinvigorate international interest in Central Asia.
Japan may seem an unlikely leader in Central Asia, but precisely because of its consensus-driven approach and Abe’s unusual interest in international relations, it is best placed to lead. Since the dawn of the 21st century, America’s engagement with this entire region of the world has been narrowly defined by conflict in a single country. New initiatives outside of security cooperation in relation to Afghanistan, including the U.S. government’s New Silk Road initiative, have gained little traction though the commercial and economic logic behind them are compelling. As Washington continues to contemplate the shape and size of the imminent drawdown in Afghanistan, the United States has an opportunity to think beyond the conflicts and politics of a single country by expanding its vision of Central Asia to include the greater Turkic world with Japan’s help. Focusing on fortifying relationships with these countries through aid and trade would give Washington the opportunity to capitalize on the huge potential the region has to offer while building a generation that will be more democratic, prosperous, and Western-minded. Investing in this region, rather than abandoning it to Russia and China, will ensure that a decade and a half spent in Afghanistan will be an asset that America can claim for the next 15 years and beyond.
Having committed to expanding the U.S.–Japan alliance beyond the traditional confines of the bilateral relationship to include trilateral cooperation with countries such as Australia, India, and South Korea, Central Asia and Turkey are natural areas for enhanced U.S.–Japanese cooperation. Particularly in the realm of commercial diplomacy both Tokyo and Washington have much to gain from closer cooperation in Central Asia. Private companies and individuals are already beginning to see the logic; now it’s time for their respective governments to learn from their example. Prime Minister Abe now has the personal experience to champion Central Asia and hopefully President Obama will see the logic of this cooperation as he deals with a resurgent Russia and defiant China that are actively hoping to box out all other competition in the region.
Joshua W. Walker, Ph.D. (@drjwalk) leads the Japan work of the Asia Program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States as a Transatlantic Fellow and is a former Senior Advisor at the U.S. Department of State.