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Political and Economic interests of Japan in South Caucasus: Perspectives of Cooperation

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Though Japan was among the first to recognize the independence of three South Caucasus states, relations with Tbilisi, Yerevan and Baku remained limited in the 1990s. It is only in the 2010s that we saw an increased effort from Tokyo to build deeper economic cooperation. Another feature of those relations is Tokyo’s efforts to improve the South Caucasus transport corridor running through Georgia and Azerbaijan and connecting the Caspian and the Black Seas.

Japan’s position in the South Caucasus has been evolving over the past two decades. Japan traditional geopolitical expansion has historically been in the Asia-Pacific region. Very little, if at any attempts were made by Japan to penetrate economically and culturally into the South Caucasus. Surely geography played an important role. Distance between Japan and the South Caucasus precluded the two from cooperation. However, as Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia gained independence in 1991 and a rapid rise of globalization, there has been growing Japanese interest in the South Caucasus. 

First, Japan views the region beyond a purely geopolitical dimension as compared to China. For Tokyo, due to its military constrains it was important to build a platform of cooperation upon which it would later base numerous initiatives for deepening bilateral relations with Baku, Tbilisi and Yerevan. 

Such a platform was Japan’s Official Development Assistance program. The programs its priorities include disaster reduction; raising security; assistance regarding software; mobilization of Japan’s experience, expertise, and technology etc. As is seen here very little is of direct geopolitical importance. Surely Russia, Turkey, China, and the European Union (EU) work in similar areas and help the South Caucasus states, but their moves are more geopolitical than that of Japan. Perhaps Tokyo’s moves are more similar to the US’ involvement in the South Caucasus. Here too are several caveats: the US is interested in ensuring that the region does not fall back into the Russian sphere of influence, whereas Japan cannot compete with Russia. However, Tokyo and Washington, being distant powers share one similarity: the pouring of money to improve security, infrastructure and social conditions of those living in the region.

Perhaps the biggest beneficiary of Japan’s economic initiatives among the South Caucasus states has been Armenia. In fact, this is based on history of Armenian-Japanese ties. Tokyo was one of the first to recognize the independence of Armenia in 1919.

Bolshevik invasion of Armenia stopped the first contacts, but they nevertheless revived even before the collapse of the Soviet Union when Armenia was hit by an earthquake. Since 1998, Japan provided technical and expert support for the reform of Armenia’s poor energy sector. Moreover, a 40 million USD credit was used for the construction and modernization of various infrastructure in Armenia’s energy sector. This cooperation still continues as Japan now helps Armenia to reconnect the far-flung territories with modern roads and other infrastructure capabilities.

Another dimension of the cooperation is the provision of technical support for the implementation of ODA projects in the agricultural sector. There is also the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) where Armenia is actively involved as a major recipient. 

Armenia currently has a dynamically developing IT market and is especially interested in Japan as a major source high technology. This could serve as a solid basis for deeper cooperation between the two states.

However, when we talk about various spheres of Japan-Armenia cooperation, it should be remembered that there are no immediate economic benefits for the local communities. Unlike the EU’s China’s, Russia’s investments which bring a certain economic gain, there is little local development to be seen in case of Japan’s moves. Nevertheless, those initiatives are not entirely without merit, but are rather long-term, paving way for new initiatives. Only the projects such as educational grants and grants for agricultural producers, had an immediate economic impact for local communities.

Another state, albeit to a lesser degree, enjoying Japan’s economic aid is Georgia. There was a significant development in Japanese-Georgian relations over the past couple of years.

In 2018 ‘Japan’s Caucasus Initiative’ was announced, which involved two policy components: providing assistance in human resource development state building and supporting infrastructure development and business environment improvement. In both cases, Tbilisi became a benefactor.

All of Japan’s moves and initiatives are to support Georgia’s self-sustained development. This includes helping to improve the country’s connectivity and transportation infrastructure; developing renewable energy through the provision of hybrid cars and electric cars etc. Indeed, Japan has already allocated $343 million to finance construction of the 14km long Shorapani-Argveti section of the East-West Highway, which runs through Georgia and connects Azerbaijan with Turkey and Georgia’s Black Sea ports.

Another important initiative from the Japanese side has been to lessen the travel burden for South Caucasus nationals. In 2018, Tokyo voiced its decision to ease visa requirements for Georgian citizens to promote people to people connections and deepen relations between the two countries.

Moreover, Georgian President Salome Zourabichvili this January 2020 said Tbilisi aims at boosting economic cooperation with Japan with an eye to sign a free trade agreement.

If for Armenia cooperation with Japan is about geopolitics, for Tbilisi closer relations with Tokyo could produce some points of cooperation. Indeed, both states have territorial troubles with Russia and both regard Moscow’s ambitions as a certain geopolitical threat. Surely, Japan is hesitant to position itself openly in such a context, but for Tbilisi to have deeper cooperation with Tokyo is all about Georgia’s strategy of diversifying its foreign policy, finding new players able to balance Russia’s resurgent position in the South Caucasus.

Japan has been developing closer cooperation with Azerbaijan. Development of the country’s basic infrastructures and living environment has been a priority for Tokyo. For example, Shimal Gas Combined Cycle Power Plant Project (US$261million); Provincial Cities Water Supply and Sewerage Project (US$293million); Maintenance of Water Supply and Sewerage facilities at major cities in provincial areas etc.

As a starting point in the South Caucasus energy and transport corridor, Azerbaijan’s strategic position is clearly appreciated by the Japanese. This is reflected in bilateral negotiations when Japanese officials hail Azerbaijan’s strategic location and the progress made by the development of non-oil sector. 

Both countries often hold sessions of the Japanese-Azerbaijani Economic Committee in Baku and work on increasing trade turnover which is currently growing but remains far lower than what is hoped for. For instance, in 2018 Japanese imports to Azerbaijan constituted approximately $400 million. Japan mainly imports Azerbaijan’s oil and agricultural products, while Azerbaijan is interested in increasing the import of Japanese technological novelties.

Here again, as in the case of Armenia and Georgia, Tokyo is hesitant to openly position itself in regional geopolitical conflicts such as the one over Nagorno-Karabakh. Japan limits itself to diplomatic statements on the need to resolve the issues peacefully.

Overall, it could be argued that in comparison with the 1990s, Japan’s interests in the South Caucasus grew in 2010s. It is true that Tokyo does not have a definite geopolitical agenda for the region, but it clearly sees long-term geopolitical implications of helping the South Caucasus states. For Japan, the region is an interconnector of Central Asia with the Black Sea and the Eastern Europe. In that sense, Japan’s covert geopolitical agenda could be to help Georgia and Azerbaijan develop their transit capabilities. In fact, the above-mentioned initiatives implemented by Tokyo reflect this thinking. Armenia might the biggest benefactor in terms of amount of money, but in long-term geopolitical sense, the aid to develop Georgia’s and Azerbaijan’s road infrastructure would a much bigger purpose of strengthening these countries’ ability to circumvent Russian territory. Thus, considering previous Japanese moves in the South Caucasus, it is likely that we will see continuous attempts by Tokyo to pour in money in the South Caucasus, lessen visa requirements, increase trade and develop deeper educational cooperation with the three states.

Author’s note: first published in caucasuswatch.de

Emil Avdaliani specializes on former Soviet space and wider Eurasia with particular focus on Russia's internal and foreign policy, relations with Iran, China, the EU and the US. He teaches history and international relations at Tbilisi State University and Ilia State University (Georgia).

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Eastern Europe

Ukraine war’s first anniversary and beyond

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photo source: Ministry of Defense of Ukraine

The first anniversary of Russia’s special military operation in Ukraine falls on February 24. The Russian strategy of attrition war has not yet produced the desired political outcome but has been a success nonetheless, writes Indian Ambassador and prominent international observer M.K. Bhadrakumar.

The delusional “westernist” notions of the Moscow elite that Russia can be a dialogue partner of the West have dissipated thoroughly, with ex-German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s stunning disclosure recently that the West’s negotiations with Russia regarding the Minsk Agreement were an “attempt to give Ukraine time” and that Kiev had used it “to become stronger.”

Thus, the accession to Russia four ex-Ukrainian regions — Donetsk and Lugansk [Donbass], Zaporozhye, Kherson oblasts – accounting for around one-fifth of Ukrainian territory, is a fait accompli now, and Kiev’s recognition of it is a pre-requisite for any future peace talks.

The Kremlin has put necessary mechanisms in place to galvanise the defence industry and the economy to meet the needs of the military operations in Ukraine. From a long-term perspective, one historic outcome of the conflict is going to be Russia’s emergence as an unassailable military power that draws comparison with the Soviet Red Army, which the West will never again dare to confront. This is yet to sink in.

Under the plan approved by Putin, the Moscow and the Leningrad military districts will be created, three motorised rifle divisions will be formed in the Kherson and the Zaporozhye oblasts (that have been annexed in September) and an army corps will be built in the northwestern region of Karelia bordering Finland.

The internal western assessment is that the war is going badly for Ukraine. Spiegel reported last week that Germany’s Federal Intelligence Service (BND) “informed security politicians of the Bundestag in a secret meeting this week that the Ukrainian army is currently losing a three-digit number of soldiers every day in battles.”

The Biden Administration is hoping to buy time till spring to revamp the pulverised Ukrainian military and equip it with advanced weaponry. The old stocks of Soviet-era weaponry have been exhausted and future supplies to Ukraine will have to be from hardware in service with NATO countries. That is easier said than done, and western defence industry will need time to restart production.

All the bravado that ‘Kiev is preparing for an offensive to drive the Russians out of Ukraine’ has vanished.

The big picture, therefore, as the war enters the second year is that the West is working feverishly on plans, with the Biden Administration leading from the rear, to deliver heavy armour to the Ukrainian military by spring, including German Leopard tanks. If that happens, Russia is sure to retaliate with strikes on supply routes and warehouses in western Ukraine.

Dmitry Medvedev, the outspoken former Russian president who is close to Putin and serves as deputy chairman of the powerful security council, explicitly warned, “Nuclear powers have never lost major conflicts on which their fate depends.”

There is the ‘X’ factor — US domestic politics as it approaches the 2024 election year. The Republicans are insisting on an auditing of the tens of billions of dollars spent on Ukraine — $110 billion in military aid alone — making the Biden Administration accountable.

The CIA chief William Burns paid an unpublicised visit to Kiev, reportedly to transmit the message that US arms supplies beyond July may become problematic.

International Affairs

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Eastern Europe

China Still Ambivalent About the Middle Corridor

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Image Source: Mbkv717/Flickr

Despite the oft-touted momentum behind the Eurasian Middle Corridor circumventing Russia, China still appears not to be fully behind the project beset by geopolitical challenges and infrastructure hurdles.

Overlapping Interests

Russia’s war on Ukraine has been a game-changer for Eurasian connectivity. The route through north Eurasia running from China to Europe that served as a major conduit between the two is now less attractive as a result of the Western sanctions imposed on Moscow. China-EU shipments along the Northern Corridor have decreased by 40 percent according to data from October 2022. This new reality serves as a major incentive for finding alternative routes.

It is rare in geopolitics that so many states in such a short timeframe would agree on advancing a certain project. The Middle Corridor, connecting China and Europe via Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Black Sea, is a good example of a vision where different countries from across Eurasia have accelerated the work not only on promoting the idea, but also laying the ground for its expansion.

In the months following the invasion of Ukraine, the EU has re-invigorated its policies toward the wider Black Sea region and has actively engaged Central Asia through high-level visits, pledging economic and political support. No longer willing to trade with China through Russia, Brussels is now pushing for the expansion of the Middle Corridor.

Small nations along the Corridor, too, have upped their diplomatic game. Leaders of Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Central Asian states have grasped the emerging opportunity and begun inter-state cooperation through bilateral visits and the signing of memorandums on the minimization of tariffs and border crossing hurdles.

The effects of such cooperation are already evident. Indeed, emerging connectivity opportunities push the governments to reconsider their previous position on long-stalled projects such as the Anaklia deep sea port in the case of Georgia or the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway, which the cooperating states pledged to begin work on in 2023.

Then, there is Turkey. Seeing an opening in the region, Ankara has increased its outreach to Central Asia already following Azerbaijan’s victory over Armenia in 2020. Effectively the initiator of the Middle Corridor idea back in 2000s, Turkey is now arguably one of the critical players driving the concept. A series of “block train” transports were initiated in recent years, traversing the corridor. In February 2021, a train reached China from Turkey’s eastern provinces after nearly twenty days of transit. In April 2022, another train was dispatched via the same route. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Kazakh colleague Kassym-Jomart Tokayev commended during their summit in Ankara in 2022 “the growth of cargo transit via the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railroad and the East-West Middle Corridor.” Moreover, the two sides “stressed the importance of strengthening coordination between the relevant institutions for the effective and sustainable use of the Middle Corridor.”

Yet, one critical player– China – is largely missing. Beijing has rarely commented on the Middle Corridor and Chinese analysts write exceptionally little on the issue. Most importantly, Beijing has invested very little in the actual development of the corridor.

Significant Constraints

China’s reticence so far can be explained by pure pragmatism. Of course, there is a major imperative for Beijing to find alternative routes as transit through Russia becomes problematic. In that regard, the Caspian Sea and the South Caucasus indeed constitute geographically the shortest link to Europe.

Yet, the route is not an easy one – it is multimodal, i.e. consists of both sea lines and land routes and crosses multiple countries which have made little effort to synchronize their transit capabilities and develop infrastructure before 2022.

Currently, there is close to no joint tariff coordination, effective inter-governmental dialogue and adequate infrastructure to process the throughput which has been shipped through Russia. For instance, lack of infrastructure in the Caspian Sea prevents convenient transit from Central Asian ports to Azerbaijan. Similar troubles beset the Georgian side of the Black Sea, especially as there is no deep sea port. The construction of the Anaklia port was postponed due to political infighting in the country with new construction plans only recently announced. In 2022, the Middle Corridor could only absorb 3-5 percent of the China-EU trade, which limits Beijing’s interest in the route.

Finally, geopolitical factors, such as instability in the South Caucasus, have contributed to making the Middle Corridor not as attractive for China as it might seem on the first sight. Russian influence is a primary factor. Despite Russia’s current weakness and incrementally growing dependence on China, the latter will have to carefully measure how Moscow will be responding to the development of a route which circumvents it from the south, in the region where Moscow has four military bases.

Kremlin could potentially rupture the connection both politically and through the use of more radical measures if deemed necessary. Much will depend on how Moscow fares in Ukraine. Perhaps a victory might even embolden it to prevent the corridor from materializing. But even if defeated or bogged down in a protracted war, Russia’s behavior will remain unpredictable, keeping China at unease.

From the South Caucasus, the Middle Corridor continues to either the Black Sea or Turkey. The former is currently a war theater, with chances for peaceful implementation of the corridor quite limited. This leaves China with Turkey.

Ankara and Beijing have promoted inherently competing visions of Eurasian connectivity. There were even hints that Turkish and Chinese influence clashed in Azerbaijan, which limited China’s engagement in the expansion of the Middle Corridor. After the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, the situation seems to have changed and Turkey and China have opened more active talks on cooperation along the corridor. For instance, China-Turkey Communication Forum was held in September 2022, focusing, among other things, on synergizing the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) with the Turkey’s Middle Corridor. Yet, the pace of cooperation remains slow with little practical steps taken so far.

Looking Ahead

China might eventually grow interested in the re-invigorated Middle Corridor as a part of a hedging strategy. As was the case with silk roads in ancient and medieval times, trade corridors rarely remain static. They constantly adjust to emerging opportunities and evade potential geopolitical dangers. In the same vein, China’s massive BRI is far from stationary, but constantly evolving and adjusting to varying circumstances instead.

Although the South Caucasus and the Caspian Sea have not featured high in the BRI documents published by Beijing, the region can rise to rank higher among Chinese interests amid a new emerging geopolitical reality. This is especially the case if Russia grows even more sidelined in Eurasian geopolitics and Beijing realizes that betting on Russia long-term is a dead-end.

Author’s note: first published in chinaobservers

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Eastern Europe

A turning moment in Ukraine Crisis

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Germany’s decision to send tanks to Ukraine is a major moment in the Ukraine Crisis. It will have a far-reaching impact and may turn it into World War III. It is a tradition of the US to gang up to counter its adversaries. Iraq war, Libyan attacks, Syrian aggression, and the Occupation of Afghanistan, all were the result of allied forces, the US has the skills to make allies in addition to NATO and achieve its political objectives.

The US lobbies against its adversaries, and use all dirty tricks including media to malign its adversaries. They mislead the public and level the ground for the next stage – armed intervention. Looking at US interventions in any part of the world, you may conclude a similar approach.

Ukraine is also no exception. The US was preparing grounds for this crisis for a long and dragged Russia into it. Including Ukraine in NATO, was a red line for Russia, but, deliberately, this path was chosen to spoil global peace.

After failing all negotiations, Russia was left with no option except launch a special military operation on the same line as the 2014 Crimea operation. It was just a limited operation and should have been over after securing Russian borders only.

Unfortunately, the US had different intentions and trapped Russia in Ukraine and a full-scale war started. It was purely American war against Russia, but, as usual, America ganged up with NATO and also sought assistance and support from friendly countries.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced the move on Wednesday, bowing to intensifying international pressure – led by the United States, Poland, and a bloc of other European nations, which called on Berlin to step up its military support and commit to sending their sought-after vehicles. The influx of Western tanks into the conflict has the potential to change the shape of the war. The shipments are a breakthrough in the West’s military support for Kyiv, signaling a bullish view around the world about Ukraine’s ability to reclaim occupied territory. Crucially, they may allow Ukraine to take the fighting to Moscow’s forces and re-capture more occupied land, rather than focusing primarily on beating back Russian attacks.

The US has increased its defense budget and military aid to Ukraine. It is aimed to attack Russia, not limited to liberating Ukraine only. It will prolong the war and let Russia bleed for longer.

Participation of Europe in conflict may worsen the situation and may harm Europe more. Although there are public rallies, protests, and agitations in major cities in Europe to end the Ukraine war or at least oppose Europe’s active participation. Some were chanting slogans to leave NATO. It seems the public understands the consequences but the rulers are blindly following US policies. It might create a rift between the public and rulers.

Blunders made by rulers, but, the price is being paid by the public, in the form of inflation, hikes in the price of fuel, energy, food, etc., are a common phenomenon all over Europe. The danger of spreading the war is at high risk.

Imagine, if Russia also seeks assistance from its allies and gangs up to conform to NATO aggression, it will be certainly a Word War III. Today, the World is obviously polarized and blocks are emerging rapidly.

It also can turn into nuclear war too. The 8 declared nuclear states have enough piles of nuclear weapons to destroy the whole world completely. It is scaring scenario.

But despite knowing the consequences, no one is taking any initiative to end the war and seek political solutions to the crisis. The US is not interested in the peaceful resolution of the disputes and Europe is blindly following America.

It is urged that the UN may intervene proactively and initiate a dialogue to reach an acceptable solution for all stakeholders. Unbiased, non-partisan nations may come forward to initiate peace dialogues. All peace-loving countries and individuals may act proactively and struggle to end the Ukraine crisis. Satisfying all concerned parties may achieve sustainable peace and avert any big disaster.

Humankind is the most precious thing in this universe and must be respected. Value human lives, save human lives, and without any discrimination protects human lives across the board all over the globe.

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