Prime Minister Shinzo Abe held a summit meeting in Uzbekistan on Sunday, his fourth stop on a six-nation tour of Central Asia and Mongolia.
While the former Soviet republics of Central Asia have maintained close ties with Russia, many are also friendly with Japan, although China, with its incredible appetite for resources, is fast becoming a major player in the region.
On the tour, Abe is seeking to reinforce ties with nations in the region, as well as to create business opportunities for Japanese companies and expand trade.
50 execs join trip
"This is my first time in Uzbekistan. After hearing about my wife's visit, I've really been looking forward to it," Abe told Uzbek President Islam Karimov on Sunday.
Abe's tour of Central Asian countries is the first time a Japanese prime minister has been to the region since Junichiro Koizumi visited Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan in August 2006.
No prime minister has visited Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyz before.
In the past, most administrations adopted a "waiting" posture toward the region, inviting its leaders to visit Japan. By taking a more proactive approach, Abe hopes to show Japan's interest in the region.
Abe thinks Central Asia can be a market for Japanese social infrastructure exports, a pillar of his Abenomics policy.
Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan are both rich in oil, natural gas and other resources. Imports from those countries would diversify Japan's resource suppliers, which Abe believes will improve "energy security."
Fifty company executives are accompanying Abe. In Turkmenistan, deals totaling more than US$18 billion (S$25 billion) were made, including a project to construct a natural gas plant.
The Central Asian countries became independent after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, although Russian influence in the region remains strong.
The Japanese government has provided large amounts of overseas development assistance to these nations, which along with other initiatives has enhanced Japan's reputation in the region.
China in recent years has sought to increase its presence in the region, such as through the One Belt, One Road (OBOR; see below) initiative, which aims to create a huge economic zone by connecting the eastern and western parts of the Eurasian continent by land and sea.
The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank that China leads is also designed to widen its sphere of influence, analysts said. Central Asia sits right in the middle of the Silk Road Economic Belt, which is part of the OBOR initiative. Four Central Asian nations have said they will join the AIIB. Turkmenistan, which has a policy of remaining a neutral state, has not.
Russia in January launched the Eurasian Economic Union, which Kazakhstan and Kyrgyz have joined. The economic sanctions imposed by Europe and the United States over Ukraine have forced Russia to rely more on China for trade. "China will probably become the head of the family in Central Asia," an analyst said.
With China and Russia both seeking to increase their influence in the region, Japan could serve as a "safety valve" for Central Asian nations. More trade with, and investment from, Japan would reduce their reliance on China and Russia and bring greater economic stability, observers said.
Karimov made a surprise appearance at a meeting that the Japanese executives were attending after his summit with Abe on Sunday.
"Several countries are trying to do similar things, but Japan does it in the most transparent and efficient way," he told them.
One Belt, One Road
An economic plan proposed by Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2013 that includes the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st-Century Maritime Silk Road. The initiative aims to improve roads, railways, ports and other infrastructure in the countries along the two routes. Some of the projects are to be paid for by a US$40 billion "Silk Road fund" from the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.