Japan’s Silk Road Diplomacy – Paving the Road Ahead

Edited by Christopher Len, Tomohiko Uyama and Tetsuya Hirose

Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program, and The Silk Road Studies Program (Institute for Security and Development Policy), Washington/Stockholm,  2008, ISBN: 978-91-85937-46-2

Review by Sean Curtin

It is not quite two decades since the former Soviet Union’s secluded Central Asian republics (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan) declared independence. Yet in the last twenty years their geopolitical profile has dramatically risen. Japan was relatively late to recognize their global significance, thus its regional strategy emerged at a gradual pace. This substantive new work gathers together the research of ten leading experts, who chart Japan’s Central Asian foreign policy and provide a comprehensive overview of Tokyo’s evolving regional approach.

During the Soviet era Central Asia barely registered in the Japanese consciousness, Tomohiko Uyama notes “Soviet Central Asia was never an object of great interest to Japanese diplomacy (page 106).” Consequently, post-Soviet Japanese engagement in Central Asia was relatively slow to take shape and can be divided into roughly three segments. These are phase one (i) spanning 1992-1997 (Japan’s initial policy towards Central Asia), phase two (ii) covering 1997-2004 (PM Hashimoto’s Eurasian Diplomacy/Silk Road Diplomacy) and phase three (iii) running from 2004 to the present (PM Koizumi’s Central Asia Plus Japan initiative).

The first period commences with the independence of the five Soviet republics in 1992 and ends in 1997. Perhaps not surprisingly, in the first five years Tokyo focused relatively little attention on the region. Although the break-up of the Soviet Union afforded Japan an opportunity to engage with a re-emerged Russia and the new cluster of post-Soviet independent states, its initial efforts floundered. This was largely because foreign policy was too fixated on Russia, downgrading initiatives and policy towards Central Asia. Tokyo’s keenness to resolve its decades-long territorial dispute with Moscow over the Northern Territories (South Kuril Islands), which the Soviet Red Army occupied at the end of WWII, resulted in an overemphasis on relations with the Kremlin. Stalemate on the issue finally snapped Tokyo out of its myopia and turned its gaze towards the newly independent countries of Central Asia. Its inadequate response in the early post-independence period allowed China to make significant political and economic strides, signing various bilateral agreements and resource cooperation accords. Due to historic factors Russia also enjoyed considerable political and economic clout in the region. While counterbalancing the influence of both Beijing and Moscow was one foreign policy object, the region’s abundant oil and gas reserves also offered a possible solution to Tokyo’s challenging energy diversification strategy (see chapter 9 by Kuniko Shimao).

By 1997 Japanese diplomats had finally begun to properly grasp the true geopolitical importance of Central Asia and the Caucasus region. If Japan wished to remain a global player, it could not afford to fall further behind Russia and China on its regional doorstep, consequently it decided to upgrade its strategy.

In this new atmosphere Japanese Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto introduced the concept of “Eurasian Diplomacy” and more specifically “Silk Road Diplomacy” in a speech delivered in 1997. He outlined Japan’s foreign policy not only towards Russia and China but also significantly towards the nascent Central Asia states (“Silk Road Diplomacy”) and Caucasus region. Hashimoto set out a vision in which Japan would strive to improve its relations with these young nations with the aim of fostering political and economic stability. Tokyo would assist in integrating them into the international community, and so contribute towards the establishment of a “peaceful Eurasian continent” through enhanced cooperation. Hashimoto dramatically declared that it was time for Japan to craft a new Eurasian diplomatic perspective, one which would be “viewed from the Pacific” rather than “from the Atlantic.” Christopher Len states, “this strategy sought to promote the idea that Japan as an Asian state could play a leading role in influencing Eurasian affairs (page 31).” Hashimoto’s Silk Road Diplomacy set a clear course and a substantive relationship gradually began to take shape. While the new policy was in reality not so radically different from previous policy, the Hashimoto initiative gave it an enormous boost and the “Silk Road Diplomacy” project provided the necessary framework to take an invigorated policy forward (see Chapter 10 by Hirose Tetsuya).

Prime Minister Hashimoto in Central Asia

As bilateral ties strengthen, Tokyo searched for new initiatives to take relations to a higher level. It was even suggested that Japan should join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) which was founded in 1996 and initially comprised China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia and Tajikistan (the Shanghai Five). When and Uzbekistan later joined it was renamed the SCO (see Chapter 4 by Akihiro Iwashita). However, the SCO idea was rejected and Japan in consultation with the Central Asia states decided to inaugurate its own body. The establishment of the “Central Asia Plus Japan” initiative under the Koizumi administration signalled the next phase in Tokyo’s Central Asia strategy.

In 2004 the Central Asia Plus Japan initiative was launched in a speech by Foreign Minister Yuriko Kawaguchi, signalling another important milestone. Christopher Len obverses, “In essence, the Central Asia Plus Japan initiative is a continuation of the Silk Road Diplomacy set out in 1997 (page 40).” He further comments, “Japan’s initiative was welcomed by the Central Asian governments. This is because Japan’s efforts and contributions complemented the primary objectives of the Central Asian regimes, namely, regime survival, economic growth and state autonomy (page 41).” Tomohiko Uyama believes the policy “is based on Japan’s experience with ASEAN, a relative success in the history of Japanese diplomacy (page 112).”

Japan’s Official Development Assistance 2005 Report explained its Central Asia policy objectives, stating they were based on two pillars: “(1) to further enhance efforts to strengthen bilateral relationships and develop closer ties between Japan and each Central Asian country, and (2) to advance dialogues with the entire Central Asian region in order to promote intraregional cooperation aiming at further development of the Central Asian countries (page 39).” The report also clarified that the enterprise (including Turkmenistan as an observer), was “initiated with the objective of materializing the second pillar.”

In August 2006, in the penultimate month of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s administration, he visited Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, the first such visit by a serving Japanese PM.  Some sceptical observers viewed Koizumi’s trip as primarily an attempt to secure energy resources for Japan combined with an effort to counterbalance the regional influence of China and Russia. However Timur Dadabaev is convinced it was much more, marking a significant milestone. He writes “Koizumi’s visit to Central Asia exceeded all previous efforts of Japanese diplomacy and aimed to accomplish a breakthrough in relations with regional states (page 130).”

2006 saw the emergence of another significant strand in the regional policy weave with the launching of the Arc of Freedom and Prosperity (AFP) initiative. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA), under the then Foreign Minister Taro Aso, described the AFP as a new pillar for Japanese diplomacy. Aso, who latter served as Prime Minister (24 September 2008 – 16 September 2009), enthusiastically supported the idea. Yuasa Takeshi comments, “Foreign Minister Aso Taro himself was one of the driving forces behind the AFP initiative. He used it to make not only diplomatic appeals, but also proposals to distinguish his vision regarding the contemporary situation in Eurasia and (roughly) diplomatic strategy (page 48).” Takeshi is generally positive towards Aso, describing him as a man who “announces his own ideas in simple words to Japanese citizens (page 50),” ironically a quality he was criticized for when prime minister. The AFP initiative stressed the importance of “value-oriented diplomacy.”


Aso’s keenness for the idea was demonstrated when in June 2007 he published a book of his own speeches and monologues, “Arc of Freedom and Prosperity [自由と繁栄の弧], (Gentosha, 2007).

Uyama makes an interesting observation about AFP, stating “is a fundamental departure from traditional Japanese diplomacy in the sense that it places strong emphasis on ‘universal values’ such as democracy, freedom, human rights, the rule of law, and the market economy (page 114).” Timur Dadabaev believes the proper functioning of the policy holds the key to deepening ties (page 140), while Erica Marat stresses people to people exchanges within the AFP initiative (page 99).

Taro Aso launches the Arc of Freedom and Prosperity

By Japanese standards, Aso enjoyed a relatively long stint of two years at MOFA (31 October 2005 – 27 August 2007) which enabled him to vigorously promote the idea. However it was not sufficient time to bring the AFP concept to “maturation” and after Aso was replaced as Foreign Ministry the initiative was not pursued under the administration of Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda (26 September 2007 – 24 September 2008) and his Foreign Ministry, Masahiko Kōmura. Yuasa Takeshi observes, “the AFP appears to have been withdrawn as a main initiative of Japanese foreign policy. Since then, the AFP as a regional concept has hardly ever been discussed (page 47).” Surprisingly, this situation did not change when Aso succeeded Fukuda to the Premiership in September 2008, but the overriding focus of Aso’s administration was mainly devoted to dealing with the dire economic situation and trying to stave off almost inevitable electoral defeat from a buoyant opposition. If Aso had won the August 2009 election, he may well have refocused on the policy he promoted so enthusiastically when Foreign Minister.

It is too early to evaluate Japan’s diplomatic achievements under the AFP framework and how they will evolve under the new administration of Prime Minister Yukio Hatayama and his successors. The new Democratic Party of Japan government has yet to set out its own vision for Central Asia. The book takes us up to the Fukuda administration of 2008, Christopher Len gives Tokyo a fairly favourable assessment up to this point, “Japanese efforts to engage the Central Asian leaderships and to help the region develop links with the rest of the world, beyond Russia and China, should be acknowledged as a significant contribution by this Asian nation and be supported (page 46).” Niklas Swanström is equally as positive stating that Japan “has an important role to play in balancing Russia and China, and in guiding the Central Asian economies closer towards greater openness (page 156).” However, there will almost certainly be many challenges ahead as Japan seeks to consolidate its position in Central Asia. This invaluable book provides an excellent basis for understanding how its foreign policy may develop and interpreting Tokyo’s stance towards this pivotal region.

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