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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

Lithuania is left in the dust

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The nearly completed Nord Stream 2 is again in focus. It has become known that the U.S. Senate on January 13 failed to pass a bill to slap sanctions on Russia’s Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline sponsored by Republican Senator Ted Cruz. The tally was 55 in favor and 44 against the bill that needed 60 votes to pass. Those who voted against his bill said it risked breaking unity in Washington and in Europe. U.S. senators said also Cruz sanctions on Nord Stream 2 could harm relations with Germany which is very important for the U.S. foreign policy and economy.

Top Ukrainian officials, as well as Lithuanian government supported Cruz’s bill, arguing the United States should do everything in its power to halt the pipeline project.

The link is designed to export gas from Russia directly to Germany by bypassing Ukraine, through which Russia has sent gas to Europe for decades. That would deprive Ukraine of lucrative transit fees and potentially undermine its struggle against alleged Russian aggression. The decision will allow the completion of the gas pipeline to Europe without the imposition of further US sanctions. Earlier Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis said that the a deal between the United States and Germany on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline was a “mistake”. It is interesting that the vote came as U.S. and European officials held high-level talks with their Russian counterparts. It is quite possible that the decision about Nord Stream 2 pipeline was the result of these negotiations.

This fact has sparked anger and has become great political disappointment for the Lithuanian officials who view the project as a security threat.

Lithuania, positioning itself as the main Ukraine’s patron in Europe, is confused with such U.S. decision. Lithuania promotes the U.S. interests and support all American initiatives even to the detriment of its own interests. Only this month Lithuania took a number of steps to prove its commitment to US policy. Lithuania even has dared to challenge China, one the main US strategic competitors. It continues to spend millions of dollars on military purchases from the U.S. using the narrative of “the threat from the East”. In December Lithuania signed an agreement with the U.S. to improve military interoperability.

The more so, the Lithuanian government has decided to accelerate its planned purchase of a multiple launch rocket system (MLRS) amid Russia’s military buildup on its border with Ukraine. The decision to buy US’ Lockheed Martin system in 2026, two years earlier than Vilnius previously planned.

The country also regularly holds political consultations with the U.S. officials to coordinate its further actions. But the U.S. in its turn does not pay attention to Lithuania’s opinion and makes decision in its favour.

Lithuanian government should gain Lithuanians’ support and pay attention to their needs. The matter is discontent in Lithuanian society is growing every day. Thus, on January 13, the usual commemoration of Freedom Defenders saw loud booing and heckles from the crowd of protesters who called on the government (and the parliament) to resign.

It is obviously that the threat from the East is not so real as threat to be fired due to loss of confidence in near future.

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Eastern Europe

Rebuilding of Karabakh: Results of 2021

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Image source: azerfocus.com

The restoration work in Karabakh entered the active phase in 2021 as several projects had been completed and the foundations for new ones were laid down. The restoration process in Karabakh started right after the November 10th declaration that ended the 44-Day War between Armenia and Azerbaijan. After the war, Azerbaijan liberated its territories that constituted about 20% of the total territory of Azerbaijan and were occupied by Armenian forces in the early 90s.

During the occupation, about thirty years, Karabakh was subject to ruthless destruction and looting by the occupants. As a result, most of the social infrastructure, including residential buildings, schools, and hospitals, were totally destroyed, and most parts of the occupied territories were left empty. Despite the fact that the total destruction in Karabakh makes the restoration process complex and time-consuming, Azerbaijan immediately started the restoration process. For this purpose, the plan for socio-economic development of the liberated territories was prepared, and for the implementation of this plan, “Coordination Headquarters” and 17 working groups on different areas were established. In 2021, $2.2 billion was allocated from the state budget for the restoration process. The same amount of funds is planned to be directed to the restoration process in 2022 as well. The allocation of the necessary financial resources and the establishment of the state bodies for the efficient organization of the recovery process led to the rapid implementation of projects in 2021.

The most notable project that was almost completed in 2021 was the Fuzuli International Airport. The inauguration of the airport took place in Azerbaijan’s liberated city of Fuzuli in Karabakh on October 26. It was the first airport built by Azerbaijan in the liberated areas, and its construction took only eight months. It was built in accordance with the highest international standards, which enables it to accommodate any type of aircraft. A runway with a length of 3000 meters and a width of 60 meters has been put into operation at the airport. The first test flight to Fuzuli International Airport was performed on September 5, 2021, when the largest passenger aircraft of Azerbaijan Airlines, named Karabakh, landed at the airport. Because of its location, the new airport is considered as an “air gate of Karabakh”. Along with Fuzuli airport, the foundations of the other two airports in Lachin and Zangilan districts were also laid down in 2021.

The year 2021 was also marked by the establishment of the Horadiz-Jabrayil-Zangilan-Agband highway. The foundation of this road was laid on October 26, with the participation of the leaders of Azerbaijan and Turkey. With a length of 124 km, it is part of the Zangezur Corridor, the establishment of which was envisioned in the November 10 declaration. The Zangezur Corridor is a very important project that is going to change the transportation architecture of the South Caucasus and its neighborhood. Its proximity to the Karabakh and connection to the main roads in the region will accelerate the restoration and development of the Karabakh.

Within the framework of the restoration process, another important event in 2021 was the foundation of the first “smart village” in Agali village in the Zangilan district on April 26. As of October, the construction work on more than 110 hectares in Agali village was underway. It includes the construction of 200 ecological houses, 4 non-residential buildings, a smart school for about 360 students, and a kindergarten for 60 children. Work on establishing smart agricultural infrastructure on approximately 600 hectares of land is also ongoing. According to the restoration program, it is planned to re-establish cities and villages in the liberated territories based on the “smart city” and “smart village” concepts. Thus, after the Agali village, this concept will be implemented in other areas of Karabakh.

In 2021, the highway that connects the Fuzuli and Shusha cities was also opened. As this highway passes through the territory that was used to liberate Shusha city, it has a symbolic meaning for Azerbaijan, and therefore it is named “The Road to Victory.” The Fuzuli-Shusha highway is part of the Ahmadbeyli-Fuzuli-Shusha highway, one of the main highways in Karabakh. It is 101.5 km in length and reduces the distance from the capital Baku to Shusha to about 363 km. The foundation of another important transport project, the Horadiz–Agband railway, was also laid in 2021 and its construction continues. This railway is 100 kilometers long and has strategic importance as it will connect the mainland of Azerbaijan with Nakhchivan, Azerbaijan’s landlocked exclave, through the Zangezur corridor.

Along with the mentioned roads, the opening ceremony of the 28-kilometer highway that connects the city of Tartar with the villages of Sugovushan and Talish took place in 2021. The length of this road is 28 kilometers, and as planned, the extension of this project will include 22 kilometers of highway from Talish to Naftalan. Construction and planning work on various transportation projects such as the Barda–Aghdam railroad, the Fuzuli-Shusa railway, and the Toganal-Kalbacar highway were also continued.

Comprehensive works in the energy sector were also carried out within the framework of the restoration program, based on the strategy for transforming the liberated territories into “green energy” zones and connecting the energy infrastructure in those territories to Azerbaijan’s general energy system. In 2021, with a total capacity of 20 megawatts, “Gulabird”, “Sugovushan-1” and “Sugovushan-2” small hydroelectric power stations (HPS) were reconstructed and put into operation in the liberated territories. In total, nine digital substations were built in the Karabakh and East Zangezur regions. Simultaneously, in the Aghdam and Jabrail regions, the construction of “Aghdam-1,” “Aghdam-2,” and “Jabrayil” substations as well as the Karabakh Regional Digital Management Center has been completed.

The other important project in the energy sector was the foundation of the Digital Station Management Center in Fuzuli. This project, implemented for the first time in the South Caucasus, allows through automation to reduce the impact of the human factor on the operation of the network, increase reliability and reduce losses during the transmission of electricity. All these projects in the energy sector serve to maintain the energy security in liberated territories and to transform these territories into “green energy” zone.

All the mentioned projects show that Azerbaijan has actively worked for rebuilding Karabakh in 2021. It will enable Azerbaijan to fully integrate the Karabakh economy into the Azerbaijan economy and to use its economic potential in upcoming years. As the liberated territories have great potential in sectors such as agriculture and energy, it will also positively affect the development of the non-oil sector in Azerbaijan. Implementation of all projects that were started in 2021 will not only contribute to the economic development of Azerbaijan, but will also transport Azerbaijan and Karabakh to the transport and economic center of the region.

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Eastern Europe

No borders to struggle against COVİD-19: Solidarity of humanity can help the situation

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Just as COVID-19 does not recognize borders, it is necessary to build the struggle against it on the basis of organization, solidarity, mutual assistance, the use of positive experience, and it should not recognize borders.

2021 was a year of continued struggle against the pandemic and of the emergence of new variants of the virus. The South Caucasus also was not away from COVID-19 and its variants. Azerbaijan continued its effective fight against COVID-19, making the most of the lessons of previous years and the opportunities for rapid response. The vaccination campaign, which was conducted as well as in highly developed countries, is a real sign of performance in this sector. During the year Azerbaijan gave humanitarian and financial aid to more than 30 countries in order to fight the pandemic, made a voluntary financial contribution of 10 million US dollars to the World Health Organization and freely donated 150,000 doses of vaccine to four countries.

The newly appointed head of the EU delegation to Azerbaijan, Petr Michako, also stressed the high level of vaccination in Azerbaijan. The capital – Baku is working closely with The European Union in this direction. The European Union and the World Health Organization have supported the fight against COVID-19 in Azerbaijan with the necessary medical equipment. Medical personnel in Azerbaijan have been repeatedly provided with respirators, goggles, transparent masks and overalls for this purpose. All equipment sent for the safety of medical personnel fighting the virus on the front lines was tested for compliance with quality and safety standards. Kestutis Jankauskas, Head of the EU Delegation to Azerbaijan, said that his organization, as a “Team Europe”, is helping to prevent, detect and combat the COVID-19 pandemic. “Healthcare workers are at the forefront of the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, which increases their risk of contracting the virus,” he said. -They are our heroes and they need protection. “As part of the Team Europe initiative, the EU has launched an individual COVID-19 package with a budget of around € 32 million to support urgent needs and socio-economic recovery.

In 2021, Azerbaijan achieved major progress in combating the pandemic and the global economic crisis and in mutual cooperation. As a chair of the Non-Aligned Movement, Azerbaijan put forward an initiative to establish a UN High-Level Panel on global restoration after COVID-19. The member states of the Non-Aligned Movement took a unanimous decision to extend Azerbaijan’s chairmanship of the movement for another year, until the end of 2023.

Azerbaijan proposed a resolution at the UN Human Rights Council on behalf of the Non-Aligned Movement on equal and universal access to vaccines for all countries and the resolution was passed unanimously in March 2021. This resolution showed Azerbaijan’s stance on the increasing vaccine nationalism in the world and became an international success.

As a result of all measurements now the number of people receiving the second,third and further doses of the vaccine in Azerbaijan has exceeded 40 percent. Azerbaijan is one of the countries in the continent where the number of virus infections is rapidly declining. Azerbaijan is doing its best to observe this trend around the world. Solidarity can help the situation.

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