NBR Analysis vol. 12, no. 1
Japan's Energy Angst and the Caspian Great Game
An intriguing mix of economic and geopolitical considerations has motivated Japan’s interest in Central Asia. To assess Japan’s role in the competition for access to the Capian’s energy reserves, this essay identifies the various forces motivating Japan’s entry into the Capsian Great Game and outlines several possible scenarios for the future of Japanese involvement in the region.
Energy is the catalyst behind Japan’s involvement in the Caspian region. Japan currently imports 99 percent of its daily oil consumption, and its neighbors in Northeast Asia are becoming increasingly dependent on imported energy as well. Japan’s unease at the rising Asian demand for, and dependence on, oil and gas from the Persian Gulf is compounded by the economic reality that its principal geostrategic ally, the United States, is moving in precisely the opposite direction. This intriguing mix of economic and geopolitical forces is combining Japan’s longstanding energy angst with a rising desire for political influence beyond its immediate region, transforming its emerging relationships in Central Asia.
Although Japan was late in initiating overtures to the Caspian states, it is now the largest bilateral donor to each of the major prospective energy producers of the Caspian region. Moreover, powerful interests in Japan clearly have an economic stake in the realization of Caspian energy development quite apart from the nation’s energy needs, and a massive project such as a trans–Asian pipeline network could hardly be achieved without the active commitment of Japanese financial and industrial power. Looking to the future, expanding Japanese–Central Asian interaction over the next decade is likely to substantially outstrip levels of the past and will be profoundly affected by Japan’s relations with Iran. Should trans–Iranian access routes to Central Asia grow politically acceptable in the United States, and should global energy prices remain buoyant, Japanese involvement in the Caspian region could well surge by a quantum magnitude.
Japan and Central Asia have never historically been close, despite an enduring Japanese romantic fascination with the Silk Road and a reciprocal Central Asian admiration for Japanese victories in the Russo–Japanese War. Separated by 7,000 miles and even more substantial political divides, Japanese and Central Asians had very limited direct contact until a decade ago. Yet today that limited relationship shows prospects of major redefinition, epitomized by Japan’s emergence since 1997 as the largest foreign aid donor to Central Asia.
An intriguing mixture of economic and geopolitical forces is combining Japan’s longstanding energy angst with a rising desire for political influence beyond its immediate region, transforming its emerging relationship with Central Asia.  This monograph examines those changes and the longer–term potential of the mutual relationship. It considers in particular detail Japan’s traditional energy security concerns and how those interests motivate Japan’s involvement in the larger transformation of Central Asia’s relations…
 For the purposes of this paper, Central Asia, Central Asia and the South Caucasus, and the Caspian region are terms used to describe the eight newly independent states of the former Soviet Union: Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia.