Visit to three Southeast Asian capitals - prime minister's first foreign trip - is seen as a bid to strengthen Tokyo's hand in dealing with Beijing
The last time he was prime minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe's inaugural foreign trip was to China. In the job again six years later and relations with Beijing now chilly, Abe is now turning first to Southeast Asia's rising economic stars.
A hawkish Abe wants them to help counterbalance China's growing might at a time when Japan needs new sources of growth for its languishing economy and is debating whether to make its military more muscular.
Abe arrived in Hanoi yesterday, where he was scheduled to meet Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung and other top Vietnamese officials in a visit lasting less than 24 hours. He will then head to Thailand and Indonesia, in an attempt to bolster relations with the vibrant economies of the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations bloc.
Experts warn he will have to tread carefully during his trip to avoid provoking Beijing by appearing to try to "contain" China.
Beijing is also scouring the region in search of new investment and trade opportunities and sources of raw materials. But it is also clashing with countries in the region over territorial disputes in the South China Sea, as well as with Japan over tiny isles in the East China Sea.
Tokyo "is trying to solidify its relations with other countries in the region and strengthen its bargaining power before talking to China", said Narushige Michishita, an associate professor at the National Graduate Institute.
Japanese firms are already eyeing Southeast Asia as an alternative to investment in China after a long-simmering feud with Beijing over disputed islands in the East China Sea flared up last year, sparking protests in China and hurting trade.
Abe has made it clear that Asean's planned integration in 2015, creating a bloc with combined economies worth US$2 trillion and a population of 600 million, is a significant lure for a Japanese economy trapped in deflation for decades and whose population is ageing fast and shrinking. He also says, however, that he wants to go beyond mere economic ties and expand relations in the security field.
"Japan's path since the end of the second world war has been to firmly protect democracy and basic human rights and stress the rule of law," Abe told NHK public TV on Sunday. "I want to emphasise the importance of strengthening ties with countries that share such values."
One issue that could come up is a maritime "code of conduct" that the United States has urged China and its Southeast Asian neighbours to agree upon as a step towards reducing tensions.
"Japan should play a more significant, responsible role not only for the prosperity but also stability in this part of the world," said Kunihiko Miyake, a former diplomat close to Abe.
Abe has said that he wants to improve ties with Beijing despite his tough stand over the islands dispute. But some warn his rhetoric worries Southeast Asian countries whose economies are increasingly linked to China's.
"What is the point of making an enemy of China?" said Hitoshi Tanaka, a former diplomat who is now chairman of the Institute for International Strategy in Tokyo. "It is not smart diplomacy."
Abe will need to reassure his hosts that he will not let the islands row with China get out of hand despite his hawkish security stance and his desire to revise Japan's take on its wartime history with a less apologetic tone.
"Abe might be seen as revisionist but this should not influence the dispute as all countries in the region would rather focus on economic development than see this conflict deteriorate," said Damrong Kraikuan, director general of the Thai foreign ministry's East Asia affairs department.
Reuters in Tokyo and Jakarta
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