Asean market power draws Japan PM’s visit
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who plans to make a four-day visit to Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia from tomorrow, has chosen Southeast Asian countries for his first foreign visits since taking office in December, aiming to draw on their potential for growth to revitalise Japan's economy.
At the same time, Abe apparently wants to check China's moves to expand its power in Asia.
Ahead of Abe's visit, Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida and Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso visited other Southeast Asian nations to promote the new administration's emphasis on Asia.
"Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam have potential for growth. I'd like to strengthen Japan's relationships with these nations while forming a larger international economic system," Abe said on an NHK programme Sunday.
For the Abe administration, which puts top priority on revitalising the nation's economy, it is important to draw on the economic power of Southeast Asia.
Due to tensions over the Senkaku Islands, the atmosphere for trade and investment with China has deteriorated. Therefore, Japan's economic community has high expectations for strengthening its relationship with Southeast Asia.
According to informed sources, Abe plans to announce the basic principles of his administration's Asian diplomacy, which likely will be called the "Abe Doctrine," during his visit to Indonesia.
The government also is considering helping Southeast Asian countries establish or improve their social infrastructure and industrial complexes by providing official development assistance, the sources said.
This would help Japanese companies, including small and midsize ones, expand their businesses in these countries.
The government had been coordinating with the United States to have Abe visit that country first, as the prime minister desired.
At the same time, the government also considered Southeast Asian countries for Abe's first foreign destinations, as Japan's presence has weakened in the region.
The most recent trip by a Japanese prime minister to Thailand was in 2002 and to Indonesia was in 2007, excluding visits to attend international conferences.
Threat from China
In contrast, China has been increasing its presence in the region through aid and economic activity.
However, China also has been actively expanding its maritime activities, causing disputes with the Philippines, Brunei, Vietnam and Malaysia over the sovereignty of islands in the South China Sea.
Abe said on Sunday's NHK programme, "Many countries hope to have closer ties with Japan, so we'll strengthen relations with such nations."
With the territorial dispute over the Senkaku Islands in mind, Abe suggested beefing up security cooperation with countries that are concerned about China's increasing maritime activities.
The idea is consistent with US policy focusing on military strategy in the Asia-Pacific region, with a particular eye on China.
Ahead of the prime minister's Southeast Asian visit, Kishida visited the Philippines, Singapore, Brunei and Australia and spoke with officials there about Japan's relations with China, including the standoff over the Senkaku Islands.
"[China] also has various problems in the South China Sea. How to deal with China is a common issue for the countries concerned," Kishida said at a press conference in Sydney on Sunday.
With China's increasing maritime activities in mind, the Japanese government has been enhancing maritime security in the Asia-Pacific region.
Japan has signed a joint declaration over security cooperation with Australia and India, and has been conducting joint training exercises with these countries and other activities. In the future, the government reportedly plans to further promote such security cooperation.
However, different countries are reacting differently to Japan's stance.
For example, the Philippines, which has a territorial dispute with China over the Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea, expressed its intention to strengthen cooperation with Japan and asked Kishida to provide patrol ships for the nation's coast guard.
Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr and Kishida confirmed that the two countries would promote security cooperation with the United States at their meeting Sunday. At a press conference afterward, however, Carr clearly said this cooperation with Japan was not aimed at containing China.
Abe has expressed his favourable attitude toward reviewing a 1993 statement concerning so-called comfort women, which was issued by then Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono to admit that comfort women were forcibly recruited by Japanese authorities.
Carr said this would not be desirable, calling for Japan to carefully promote Asian diplomacy.