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Japan Angles For Clout In Energy

Japan angles for clout in energy-rich C. Asia

The new framework for dialogue between the foreign ministers of five Central Asian countries and Japan, launched in the Kazakh capital Saturday, is designed to secure a greater voice for Japan in the region by promoting pro-Japanese sentiment in this strategically vital area. In particular, the move could give Japan a way to counter Chinese and Russian clout in Eurasia.

The meeting at a hotel in Astana was attended by Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi and her counterparts from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Turkmenistan declined to send its foreign minister, sending instead its ambassador to Kazakhstan.

Due to their location, the five Central Asia nations--which have abundant reserves of oil and other natural resources and are wedged between Russia and China--are likely to play a vital role in the war on terror. Three of them share borders with Afghanistan, while to the southeast lies the Middle East.

Tajik Foreign Minister Takbak Nazarov thanked Japan for taking the initiative on regional cooperation, and Kazakh Foreign Minister Qasymzhamart Toqaev said Saturday's meeting was historic.

Kawaguchi's visit to the region--the first visit by a Japanese foreign minister in five years--reflects the area's growing significance in world politics.

Fierce competition for influence in the region has developed between China, the United States and Russia, which has considered the region as its own backyard since the days of the Romanov czars.

Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan have hosted U.S. troops since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, making Central Asia a strategic base in the U.S. wars on terror and the international drug trade.

Japan shares certain historical and cultural links with Central Asia, where there is a certain amount of pro-Japanese feeling.

If Japan can establish a greater presence in the region, it also may develop a means to contain Russia and China.

A key issue during the six months that Japan spent preparing for Saturday's meeting was whether to invite the Turkmen foreign minister to the meeting. Turkmenistan fiercely guards its independence and has declined to join the Central Asian Economic Cooperation Organization, which includes the other four Central Asian countries plus Russia.

"By bringing together all five (Central Asian) states, we have dramatically increased the potential for resolving the problems faced in promoting economic development," Kawaguchi said during her opening remarks at the meeting.

On Thursday, Uzbek President Islam Karimov, who has proposed setting up a Central Asian common market, made clear his appreciation for Japanese efforts to bring all five Silk Road countries together.

However, the difficulty of bringing together Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan was clear from Turkmenistan's refusal to send its foreign minister to the meeting.

The Turkmen ambassador to Kazakhstan sat separately from the other five foreign ministers present and did not add his signature to the joint communique.

Kawaguchi appealed to Central Asian leaders to recognize the importance of regional cooperation in a policy speech she delivered at a university in Tashkent Thursday. She brought up the Association of Southeast Asian Nations as an example of successful regional cooperation.

"ASEAN has a long history of promoting cooperation between Southeast Asian countries and is now aiming to create a regional free trade area," she said.

"(A similar body in Central Asia) with its own common market and the ability to solve problems ranging from environmental and water-usage issues to antiterrorism, drugs, transport and energy would be extremely powerful," she said.

At Saturday's meeting in Astana, Kawaguchi urged Central Asian countries, which hope to attract investment from Japanese companies, to work hard to remove trade barriers in the region.

Japan is considering hosting the next meeting of foreign ministers next year.

Over the next three years, Japan will host a series of seminars on judicial systems. At the seminars, which are designed to help the fight against terrorism, experts on managing immigration and exports from many countries will provide special training to about 1,000 Central Asian officials.

The government also plans to boost technical cooperation on tapping the region's energy resources.

However, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev repeatedly stressed in a meeting with Kawaguchi on Saturday that while it might be tempting for Japan to treat Central Asian nations as if they are all the same, the reality is that circumstances vary greatly from country to country.

Due to artificial national borders drawn up during the Soviet era, the Central Asian countries have complex ethnic makeups.

Gross national income per head in Kazakhstan, the richest of the five, is 1,510 dollars per year, almost eight times higher than the figure of 180 dollars for Tajikistan, the poorest.

For all these reasons, Japan has to be prepared to take a long-term approach to dealings in the region. "This won't be easy. We're not going to see results within two or three years," a senior Foreign Ministry official said.