Abe goes a-wooing in Laos, Cambodia

Abe goes a-wooing in Laos, Cambodia

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is seeking to compete with China for influence in South-east Asia, with visits this weekend to the two ASEAN states regarded as closest to Beijing.

Stops in Cambodia on Saturday and Laos on Sunday will complete the Japanese leader's visits to all 10 ASEAN states ahead of a meeting next month that Tokyo will host for its leaders, aimed at elevating Japan's regional role and boosting cultural ties.

"Abe's visit is no doubt aimed at curbing China's influence," said Professor Koichi Sato, China scholar at J.F. Oberlin University in Tokyo.

"In the Indochinese states, Japan comes up short against China."

Significantly, this trip to South-east Asia will be Mr Abe's first following two key regional meetings last month, remembered for a last-minute no-show by US President Barack Obama due to budgetary problems at home.

The US leader's absence from the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) forum in Bali and the East Asia Summit (EAS) in Bandar Seri Begawan served to raise Beijing's profile in the region.

But Beijing's increasingly strong-arm tactics over rival claims to several groups of islands and marine resources in the South China Sea present a growing concern for the region.

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal late last month, Mr Abe said he was seeking a more assertive role for Japan to counter rising Chinese military power.

Although China has declared that it has no military ambitions in the region, Beijing is currently embroiled in a tense diplomatic row with Manila, which is challenging China's claims in the South China Sea at a United Nations tribunal.

Japan is taking every opportunity to raise its own regional profile. With the Philippines reeling from last week's super typhoon Haiyan, Tokyo has decided to mount its largest-ever international relief operation, dispatching 1,000 military personnel and pledging US$10 million (S$12.4 million) in aid.

By contrast, Beijing missed a golden opportunity to mend ties, initially offering only US$100,000 before raising that to 10 million yuan (S$2 million) in blankets, tents and other relief supplies.

Meanwhile, in Myanmar, Japan said this week that it will donate train carriages and share management and technical know-how with Myanmar's state railways.

But Beijing has clearly beaten Tokyo when it comes to Laos and Cambodia.

Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang visited Vientiane last month, while Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited Phnom Penh in August.

Although Tokyo has not said what "gifts" Mr Abe will bear, Japan will not find it easy to match Beijing's contributions in aid and investment in the two countries.

China is Cambodia's largest foreign investor and aid donor, providing US$3 billion in development aid over the past 20 years.

As ASEAN chair last year, Cambodia refused to allow discussion on regional disputes that would embarrass China.

Cambodia is also of strategic importance to China because it offers access to the Gulf of Thailand and the South China Sea. Last month, China announced a US$1.67 billion loan to Cambodia to build its first oil refinery to meet growing energy demand.

With Laos, China is working to build a high-speed rail link from Vientiane to the Chinese border and both countries have signed an accord to develop hydroelectric power that could eventually allow Laos to even export electricity.

wengkin@sph.com.sg


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