Iranian officials called for greater economic cooperation with Japan in Iran’s Free Trade Zones (FTZ’s) last week. The call came during a meeting between Iranian dignitaries and Japanese Ambassador to Iran Kinichi Komano.
The meeting is a symbol of Japan’s increasing involvement in the Eurasian region, which has occurred through various means such as trade, defence initiatives and implementations of soft power. Japan’s has sought to strengthen relations with the vast majority of the countries within the region, including, but not limited to, Azerbaijan, Iran, Turkmenistan, Djibouti, Kazakhstan and Russia, to counter the rising influence of its global competitors.
Energy security is the main issue behind Japan’s continuing involvement throughout the region. While Japan’s dependence on oil and gas primary energy sources has fallen since the 1970s, consumption of those sources remains relatively high. This, combined with the continuously rising demand for energy sources from the Eurasian region by the major developing economies of the Global South, and continuing demand from the US and other developed nations, has posed a risk to Japan’s energy security.
Japan’s economy has already been overtaken by the economy of China, and is likely to be overtaken by India in the near future. The growing economies and global influence of those nations risks compromising Japan’s interests in Eurasia, a major factor in why Japan is taking action in the region now.
Azerbaijan is one of the countries in the region that has come under a greater focus from Japan. Earlier this month, Azerbaijani Ambassador to Japan Gursel Ismayilzada encouraged greater cooperation between the two nations over energy resource development in the Central Asian nation. The call by the ambassador came ahead of an economic forum to be held between the two nations in November. (Source)
Japan also issued a US$11 million dollar grant to Azerbaijan earlier this month for the purpose of constructing and repairing fifty schools across the country. Such implementations of soft power from Japan helps give it greater geostrategic clout and increased potential to obtain Azerbaijan’s energy supplies. This is highly significant given the increasing involvement in Eurasia by the majority of the established and growing global powers such as the US, China and the EU. This helps ensure that Japan stays competitive in regional geopolitics as Eurasia’s strategic appeal continues to increase.
Relations between Japan and Uzbekistan have grown stronger in recent times, largely as a result of Japan’s desire to increase its involvement in Eurasia. This been signified in part through the visit to Japan by Uzbekistani President Islam Karimov in February 2011. Both countries produced a Joint Statement following the three-day visit, which affirmed Uzbekistan’s strategic importance to Japan, as well as the desire for both countries to strengthen cooperation in the context of trade, politics and the global arena. The visit followed the signing of a ten-year contract between Japan’s Itochu Corporation and Uzbek Government-owned Navoi Mining & Metallurgical to purchase uranium concentrate, a type of fuel used in nuclear power generation. (Source)
Both the visit by President Karimov and the contract signing prompted then-Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan to say that Uzbekistan is “geopolitically a very important country to Japan” as well as “a strategically important partner from the viewpoint of energy and resources”. (Source)
Japan’s relations with Russia have been widely characterised by the long running disagreement over the sovereignty of the Kuril Islands. In spite of this, relations between both nations, especially in the context of trade and economics, have strengthened significantly. Bilateral Japanese-Russian trade in 2010 totalled US$24 billion, double the total amount in the previous year. (Source)
Both countries have also made good use of the Japan-Russia Intergovernmental Committee on Trade and Economic Issues, a forum for bilateral economic issues at a ministerial level. In July, The third meeting of the Subcommittee on Region-to-Region Cooperation was held in the Russian city of Nizhniy Novgorod. This followed the ninth meeting of the Intergovernmental Committee in February. Such meetings and the increase in trade show that despite historical political differences, Japan sees Russia and its resources as valuable to interests.
In 2010 Japan announced that it finalised a deal to construct and open a naval base in Djibouti, near the horn of Africa. Opened in July 2011, the base is Japan’s first, and currently sole, foreign military base since World War Two. The US$40 million base will include an airfield to allow Japanese aircraft to conduct patrols over the Indian Ocean and Gulf of Aden. There will also be a permanent port facility for naval vessels. The base will accommodate Japanese forces currently housed at the US Camp Lemonnier base, also in Djibouti. The base will provide Japan with a significant boost to its anti-piracy efforts, while also helping to ensure the security of its shipping through the Indian Ocean’s sea lines of communication. Japan’s Djibouti base also helps it maintain its influence and interests in the Middle East and Eurasia region in general.
Unsurprisingly, trade relations between Japan and many of the oil-producing Middle Eastern states have strengthened. As previously stated, Japan’s trade relations with Iran have formed a major component of its continuing involvement in the region. Bilateral trade between Japan and Iran passed US$13 billion in 2010, with Japanese oil purchases accounting for US$11 billion of that sum. Trade between Japan and the United Arab Emirates & Saudi Arabia totalled US$32.8 and US$38 billion respectively in 2010, further signs of Japan’s increased regional involvement and energy security interests. (Source)
Despite Japan’s focus on utilizing alternative energy sources, the aforementioned statistics help show that it still places high value on oil imports from the Middle East.
Japan has also used elements of soft power to increase its involvement and influence in other Eurasian countries. In February this year, the Director-General for International Affairs, Bureau of Defense Policy of the Japanese Defense Ministry Hiroshi Oe visited the Georgian capital Tbilisi to conduct meetings with that country’s foreign ministry over potential bilateral military cooperation. This followed the announcement in January that Japan, along with Turkey intend to finance $1 billion towards the construction of a chemical fertilizer plant in Turkmenistan, which would aid cotton growers throughout the country. (Source)
In Kazakhstan, the most recent meeting of the Joint Commission of the Japan–Kazakhstan Government and. Private Sector on Economic Cooperation was held at the beginning of the month in the Kazakh capital, Astana. The participation of Japan in these countries shows that it wishes to remain a major actor in the region. The fact that Kazakhstan & Turkmenistan are major energy producers and that Georgia has valuable geostrategic appeal, those that those issues have become a major priority for Japan.
As energy security becomes a greater priority for most of the developed world and the Global South, Japan has taken initiatives in Eurasia to ensure its energy security concerns are addressed partly through its involvement in the Eurasian region. While the nature of Japan’s recent involvement has been largely low-key, they have helped establish Japan as a central global influence throughout the region. The extent of Japan’s involvement in Eurasia during this year, such as the various government meetings, business forums and the opening of its only overseas military base in Djibouti, confirms that the region has become an area of importance for Japan.