From October 22 to 28 this year, the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made a tour to Mongolia, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. This trip was the second one after almost a similar tour in 2006 of Junichirō Koizumi – the Prime Minister of Japan of that time, who is considered to be Abe’s “political father”.
The current Prime Minister’s “hurricane visits” to each of the six countries were marked by further actualization of the key foreign policy challenge, which is perceived by Tokyo as a factor directly linked to the development of China as the second global power.
Nearly all the regions of the world point out that the two major Asian powers are implementing the strategy known to football fans as “man-to-man marking” towards one another. In this regard, the Central Asian tour of the Japanese Prime Minister is no exception. It was made in response to Beijing’s desire to involve the Central Asian countries in the reconstruction of the land route of the Silk Road project.
As it has been repeatedly pointed out in the NEO, in recent years, there is a trend of the growing importance of the “power” component in Japan’s “toolbox” intended to address its foreign policy objectives, including those caused by strategic confrontation with China. However, its third economy status, as well as its image as one of the global centers of technological progress and potential investor in the national development projects of its partner countries remain the most important of them (and, apparently, they will remain like that in the foreseeable future).
By intensifying relations with them, Japan is resolving its “genealogical” problem, which the country faced after it went the way of westernization in the second half of the 19th century. We are talking about a complete absence of mineral resources within the territory of the country that are crucial for the functioning of a modern economy. Nevertheless, if you do not have them, you can buy them abroad in some way. This “some way” may vary. For about one hundred years since the beginning of the period of the “Meiji Restoration”, the principal means of solving this problem were political and military expansion into the neighboring countries that finally resulted in the national disaster of 1945. The entire postwar history of Japan shows a significantly more effective solution of the same problem using the nation’s current main instrument – the 50 “agents” (representing the leading Japanese financial and industrial conglomerates) who formed the core of the team, and accompanied Abe on his Central Asian tour.
Comments about the tour focus attention on the fact that, along with their important strategic position, the visited countries are also extremely rich in natural resources. In particular, they specify the countries’ shares in percentages of the world’s oil, gas and uranium ore reserves found in their territories, for control over which several leading players have been drawn in the struggle.
As a matter of fact, Mongolia can hardly be included in the Central Asian region. However, the mere fact that on the way to the five countries belonging to that region the Japanese Prime Minister felt it necessary to make a preliminary stop-over in Ulaanbaatar once again demonstrates the growing importance of control over the Mongolian territory for the world’s leading players. To be more politically correct, securing a privileged spot in the list of Mongolia’s partners plays an increasingly important role for each of them. In particular, it already played the role of a mediator in an attempt to normalize relations between Japan and North Korea under the pretext of resolving “the problem of the kidnapped” two dozen Japanese during the 70’s. From the standpoint of maintaining an independent state status, implementation of the so-called “third neighbor strategy”, which stipulates the development of relations with the “non-regional” leading countries of the world, is becoming increasingly important for Mongolia.
Thus, the entire tour of Abe can be divided into two separate parts – his visit to Mongolia and his trip to the Central Asian countries.
It is noteworthy that at that time an article appeared in the Chinese Global Times with seemingly abstract reasoning of the benefits of a neutral positioning in the international scene for small countries (including Mongolia), as well as for the whole world.
During the talks between Shinzo Abe and the Prime Minister of Mongolia Chimediin Saikhanbileg, the Partiesreaffirmed their desire to incorporate specific content into the Agreement on economic partnership signed in February 2015 during the latter’s visit to Tokyo. Among other things, it provides gradual withdrawal of tariff barriers in bilateral trade in respect of 96% of goods and services supplied to each other by 2030.
This Agreement is the first such document for Mongolia and the fifteenth for Japan, which supplies mainly engineering products, and purchases coal and other mineral resources, wool and light industry products from its partner.
Today, amid the decline in China’s growth rate – the main trade partner of Mongolia – as well as falling prices for mineral raw materials in the global markets (the main Mongolian export product), development of relations with the third economy in the world is particularly important for Ulaanbaatar. During his visit, Abe expressed Japan’s readiness to continue participation in the infrastructure projects in Mongolia, including its key national project – the development of the giant coal deposit at Tavan Tolgoi.
Special attention should be given to two aspects in the statement of the Japanese Prime Minister at the final press conference. First, he expressed gratitude to the leadership of Mongolia for its support of Japan’s adoption of a package of new laws in the defense sphere. Second, Abe noted that the two countries agreed to develop strategic partnership, and called for the involvement of the United States in the format of these relations.
The latter is not a fiction, taking into account the growing interest shown by Washington to Mongolia, especially in the development of cooperation in the field of defense. It will suffice to mention that the multilateral military exercises – Khaan Quest – are held annually in Mongolia under the auspices of the USA. The last Khaan Quest-2015 exercises involved 22 countries to different extents.
It should also be noted that the Japanese Prime Minister enjoyed a very favorable reception in Mongolia and Central Asia, which was quite understandable. All the neighbors of China deriving considerable benefits from the development of their economic relations with China show a clear commitment to insure against risks (real or imaginary ones – this is a separate issue) due to the entire fact of its transformation into the second global power.
Against the emerging decline in the shares of the main “insurance company” in the region (and in the entire world), whose role is still played by the US, the significance of “insurance company No. 2″, i.e. Japan, is increasing. Its leader arrived in the region with a proposal of financial and technological support for projects that are extremely important for the countries visited, such as those associated with the development of the Galkynysh gas field in Turkmenistan, the reconstruction of the Manas airport in Kyrgyzstan, and development of the transport infrastructure in Tajikistan.
Experts, however, have noted the apparent time lag in the Japanese reaction to China’s economic expansion that have taken place in Central Asia and Mongolia for a long time.
As for Russian interests, the potential spread of the China-Japan struggle to Central Asia (especially in a format that has already been noted in South-East Asia) may give rise to a number of new and complex issues during selection of the optimal strategy of behavior with respect to each of Russia’s two most important Asian neighbors.
Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the issues of the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.