• Premier to visit five Central Asian nations in five days
  • Trip comes weeks after Japan lost out on Indonesia rail deal

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will get the red-carpet treatment on a five-day tour of five Central Asia nations starting Friday. Construction and engineering executives will accompany him as he seeks to make inroads to a region targeted by China under its Silk Road initiative.

On the trip -- the first to Central Asia by a Japanese premier in nine years -- he’ll be awarded an honorary doctorate in Turkmenistan, and be received as guest of honor at presidential banquets there and in Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. He left Tokyo on Thursday for a meeting in the Mongolian capital of Ulaanbaatar with President Elbegdorj Tsakhia.

Abe vowed in 2013 to spearhead an expansion of infrastructure exports to 30 trillion yen ($250 billion) from 10 trillion yen by 2020. But his visit comes just weeks after his government said it was puzzled and disappointed by a decision by Indonesia -- the Southeast Asian nation of 17,000 islands whose President Joko Widodo hopes to make a key link in Xi’s planned maritime portion of the Silk Road -- to pick a rival Chinese offering for a high-speed rail project.

China is increasingly dominating the economic landscape in the resource-rich region, seeking to deepen investments with its neighbors and bolster slowing growth through its Silk Road plan to revive an ancient trade link to Europe. It’s also established its own regional infrastructure investment bank. Trade between China and the five Central Asian countries was at least $38 billion last year, compared with just $2 billion for Japan.

“Increasing Japan’s presence in a region that is closely linked with Russia and China is highly symbolic,” said Tomohiko Uyama, professor of Central Asian Studies at Hokkaido University in Japan. “Apart from strengthening the overall relationship, there will be a lot of business deals sealed this time.”

Japan’s ties with China and Russia have been strained by historical and territorial disputes.

Corporate Deals

Japanese companies will press ahead with a series of deals to construct gas and chemical plants during the trip, according to the Nikkei newspaper. Turkmenistan, which has the world’s fourth largest reserves of natural gas, and provides more than half of China’s gas imports, may provide the richest opportunities for Japan.

Five companies including Chiyoda Corp., Mitsubishi Corp. and Itochu Corp. are set to sign a deal with state-owned Turkmengaz for a 1-trillion-yen natural gas purification plant, the Sankei newspaper reported last month. Mitsubishi and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. will also officially agree on building a 500-billion-yen chemical factory in Turkmenistan, and they may sign an agreement on a fertilizer plant project in Uzbekistan, according to the Nikkei.

Japan will also seek to begin cooperation with Turkmenistan in the field of transportation and logistics, according to a document provided by the Foreign Ministry. A ministry official said agreements to be announced during the trip were still under negotiation.

Day At The Races

In a packed itinerary, Abe and his wife Akie will visit the presidential racecourse in Turkmenistan to view the golden-coated Akhal-Teke horses that are seen as a national emblem. He’ll also take tea in a yurt and give a speech on his Central Asia policy.

“Japan is helping with the development of Central Asian nations and also Mongolia,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters Thursday. “These countries have great geopolitical importance.”

Abe, Japan’s most-traveled prime minister, is set to make a further series of foreign visits before the end of the year. He plans to travel to South Korea, Turkey, Malaysia and the Philippines, even as opposition parties press him to hold another session of parliament to debate domestic issues.

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