Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe leaves today on an 11-day, five-nation Latin American tour aimed at not only winning investments in infrastructural and other projects, but also countering China's growing presence in the region.
He will lead a team of Japanese business leaders representing industries, including steel and real estate, when he visits Mexico, Trinidad and Tobago, Colombia, Chile and Brazil.
Among them is Mr Sadayuki Sakakibara, who will be the first chief of Keidanren, Japan's most powerful business lobby, to visit the region in 17 years.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters that Latin America was important to Japan because the region is now a global manufacturing hub with fast-growing markets and also a source of vital resources such as energy and metals.
In Brazil, Mr Abe and Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff are expected to discuss how Japan's know-how in building large floating platforms can help build an offshore logistics hub for deep-sea oil field development.
Both countries are also mulling over an economic partnership agreement to enhance bilateral ties. Japan plans to offer to help Brazil improve its infrastructure, including building ports and transport networks for farm products.
This will enable Brazil, a key global food exporter, to increase its shipments of grain. Brazil is the second largest source of corn and soya beans for Japan.
Mr Abe is scheduled to deliver a keynote speech on Japanese policy in Latin America in Sao Paulo.
His visit comes just after China's President Xi Jinping ended a four-nation swing on Wednesday to Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela and Cuba, Mr Xi's second trip to the region since taking office.
The Japanese leader will find China a hard act to follow.
The Chinese have offered US$20 billion (S$25 billion) for infrastructural development, including constructing a railway network linking South America's Atlantic and Pacific coasts to facilitate shipments to China.
Besides economic issues, Japan's bid for a seat on the United Nations Security Council looks to be the biggest political item on Mr Abe's agenda.
In Trinidad and Tobago, he will attend a summit with leaders of the Caribbean Community (Caricom) and is expected to announce technical aid in energy, fisheries and disaster prevention.
Japan hopes to use the aid to win support from Caricom's 14 members for its bid to secure a non-permanent seat on the Security Council next year if longstanding reforms to enlarge the number of permanent seats and give one to Japan fails yet again.
China thwarted Japan's quest for a permanent seat in 2005. But although China sees the Caribbean as an area of strategic interest, only nine Caricom members recognise China over Taiwan.
"Countering China's influence is critical for Japan's candidacy for a seat in the UN Security Council," said Professor Yoichiro Sato, director of international strategic studies at Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University. "Winning block support from Central and South American countries is crucial to Japan's strategy."
Prof Sato also pointed out that Japan is keen to secure supplies of rare earths from South America to diversify import sources away from China.
This article was first published on July 25, 2014.
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