The geopolitical impact of the Fukushima nuclear incident III: Japan’s relations with Central Asia

Inclusive Economy03 Jun 2011Alex Calvo

In a sequence of three blog posts Alex Calvo examines the wider geopolitical issues that are likely to be affected by the nuclear incident in Fukushima Daiichi, Japan.

In previous postings, Prof Calvo discussed the Nuclear Renaissance and the Competition between Japanese and South Korean nuclear corporations. In this post he examines Japan’s relations with Central Asia.

Japan’s nuclear industry is completely dependent on the import of uranium. Hence the ambitious scope of Japan’s nuclear research, which involves the design of a closed nuclear cycle to cut down the volume of uranium needed from abroad. However, it will probably take a few decades before this works.

Meanwhile, Tokyo has been quick to ensure access to uranium ores in Central Asia, where countries such as Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Mongolia have become important suppliers. The decision of China last September to suspend uranium exports has reinforced the ties between Tokyo and Tashkent, Astana, and Ulan Bator.

Rare earths, vital to all sort of industries both civilian and military, are often found mixed with uranium, and Central Asia is rich in them. The region however, needs a long term commitment to successfully exploit them, both in terms of capital and technology, and Japan is seen as a likely source.

In recent years China has almost monopolized the market, supplying around 97% of world-wide needs, not because such a high percentage of reserves is found in that country (which has around a third of total recoverable reserves), but simply because low prices, and stricter environmental standards elsewhere, have made Chinese rare earths the logical choice. The resulting quasi-monopoly was successfully employed as a weapon against Japan by Beijing after a Chinese trawler was involved in an incident in the Senkaku Islands – under Japanese sovereignty but claimed by China.

Japan thus needs Central Asia for its uranium and its rare earths, and Central Asia needs Japan to avoid becoming part of a Chinese sphere of influence. Although countries in the region welcome Chinese investment and trade, they are careful to counterbalance it with that from other countries, such as the US, Russia, and Japan.

Mongolia is a prime example of a country trying hard to find non-Chinese investors, and Japan is seen as a first-class economic and political partner –above all one not threatening to become too dominant.

If Japan and countries other than China decide to cut down their nuclear programmes in the wake of the Fukushima incident, this could make it more difficult for Central Asian leaders to achieve a balance between Chinese influence and that of third-world countries. The region’s leaders are not anti-Chinese. Neither do they want to become entangled in any sort of alliance aimed at Beijing. However, they do know that it is difficult to have relations with China as an equal, and that Beijing is trying hard to create a sphere of influence around her borders.

It is not just fewer exports of uranium that could result from Fukushima. A Japan turned inwards, concentrated on reconstruction and recovery, could fail to fulfill the regional role that so many countries are hoping for as part of their diversification strategy.

Alex Calvo is a Professor of International Relations and International Law at the European University in Barcelona, Spain.