Energy Tops Agenda As Japanese Prime Minister Heads To Central Asia

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi heads to central Asia this week on his first trip to the region as Japan steps up its rivalry with China and Russia to gain influence over the energy-rich region. Koizumi, who leaves office next month, will hold summit meetings with Presidents Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan and Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan during his four-day trip to the two countries starting Aug. 28.

The visit, the first by any Japanese prime minister to the region, comes as Tokyo looks to bolster cooperation with the oil- and gas-rich nations to compete with the booming Chinese economy for regional energy resources. Japan relies heavily on foreign energy and imports nearly all of its oil, mostly from members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC).

In Kazakhstan, Koizumi and Nazarbayev will announce an agreement to send Japanese experts to help develop Kazakh nuclear power plants, Nobutaka Takeo, an official at the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, said. Last month, Russian nuclear construction company Atomstroyexport said it and the Kazakh national nuclear company, Kazatomprom, had signed an agreement creating a joint venture for cooperating on uranium extraction in Kazakhstan and its enrichment in Russia.

China also has a pipeline from Kazakhstan capable of supplying it with nearly a sixth of its current annual oil imports. Western countries have secured the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline, which will bring oil from the Caspian Sea fields to Turkey's Mediterranean port of Ceyhan -- a major U.S.-backed project conceived 12 years ago to supply oil to Western markets that bypasses Russia and Iran.

Energy analysts say natural resources reserves in Central Asia are plentiful but development there, as in the Middle East, carries geopolitical risks. "Gas and uranium there are very important as an alternative energy to oil, but private companies may need some kind of guarantee for risks," said Akio Shibata, director of the Marubeni Research Institute.

Copyright Agence France-Presse, 2006

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