6 Feb 2017
Undercurrents in the Silk Road - An Analysis of Sino-Japanese Strategic Competition in Central Asia
By Dr. Tony Liu, Center for Comprehensive Japan and Korea Studies, National Chung Hsing University
With China's promotion of the One Belt One Road initiative, consisting of the Silk Road Economic Belt and Maritime Silk Road, at the APEC summit in 2014, where the international community once again focused its attention on Central Asia. Despite similar emphasis on the strategic importance of land and sea, much attention has been centered on the continental economic belt that seeks to cross the Eurasia continent by extending westward from China's historical city Xi'an, through Central Asia and into Europe. As a connecting point in the One Belt One Road, Central Asia is critical to China's Go Out strategy. Along with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, China clearly demonstrates an aspiration to establish its political and economic influence in Central Asia.
In terms of geopolitics, while China's activities in Central Asia remain distant for Japan, its expansion into the region entails strategic consequences that may severely challenge Japanese foreign policy and security. Although Japan and China have yet to clash directly in Central Asia, incongruent interests between the two powers already hint at the potential for friction in the region. This article is an attempt to understand the impending possibilities for conflict between Japan and China in Central Asia. By identifying and contrasting Tokyo and Beijing's respective interests and foreign policies in Central Asia, this author suggests the formation of a new battlefield for Sino-Japanese competition based around institutional leadership, regional influence and foreign assistance. Three scenarios for conflict are proposed as developments that may destabilize regional order and reinforce tensions between Japan and China in the near future.
Since the turn of the century, Central Asia has played an increasingly important role in global geopolitics. While part of the region's significance stems from Harold Mackinder's Heartland Theory, Central Asia's strategic location and rich energy and market potential make the region a fitting arena for great power politics. In 2001, international attention was drawn to Central Asia with the establishment of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). As an initial mark of China's expanding influence in the new century, the SCO sounded an alarm for Japan. In response, in 2004, Japan established the Central Asia plus Japan Dialogue in an effort to balance China's growing influence in Central Asia.
In light of the Shinzo Abe administration's re-initiation of the Central Asia plus Japan Dialogue in 2014, this paper seeks to address growing strategic tensions in Central Asia between Japan and China. The analysis will be carried out in four parts: Part one reviews the significant role of Central Asia in contemporary geopolitics; part two and part three turn to China and Japan's strategic interests and foreign policies in Central Asia respectively; and part four proposes three scenarios for strategic competition between Japan and China in Central Asia in light of recent developments. This paper concludes with some insights into the development of Sino-Japanese relations in the near future.
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