Japan seeks ties with Central Asia,mindful of China
TOKYO, June 5 (Reuters) Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Aso hosted a meeting with top diplomats from Central Asia today and agreed to strengthen Tokyo's ties with the region where rival China and neighbour Russia are increasing their influence.
Aso and ministers and envoys from Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan signed an action plan that called for closer cooperation in areas covering anti-terrorism and drugs as well as economic and energy development, including road projects to transport Central Asia's rich natural resources.
Japanese officials have stressed the strategic importance of the region -- which holds reserves of crude oil and natural gas -- for resource-poor Japan that depends on almost all of its oil imports from the West Asia.
''I hope the meeting will contribute to stability and prosperity of Central Asia,'' Aso said at the joint signing ceremony.
Japan agreed to assist building a road connecting Tajikistan and Afghanistan in the south as part of efforts to link the land-locked region to the Indian Ocean via Pakistan and provide better access for exporting natural resources.
Afghanistan's foreign minister also took part in today's talks as an observer.
Aso said Tokyo was only lending a hand to the Central Asian countries to achieve development when asked if the forum would compete with the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, a regional framework grouping the four nations plus China and Russia.
''I don't want to be mistaken, but the Central Asian nations are the main players and Japan is merely a catalyst,'' he said.
Washington has expressed displeasure at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, founded in 2001, for lobbying to push US forces out of Afghanistan and Central Asia.
''The Russians and Chinese seem to be putting pressure on these guys, and that's something we're concerned about,'' a senior Pentagon official said recently, referring to Kyrgyzstan and other Central Asian states where the US military has bases or access to facilities.
REUTERS SI HS1342