TOKYO - Japan on Saturday pledged US$6.1 billion (S$8.2 billion) in financial aid to the "Mekong Five" countries as it pushes infrastructure exports and courts influence in a region where rival China has an increasing presence.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe unveiled the pledge at a summit with his counterparts from Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam - fast-growing economies through which the lower section of the Mekong river flows.
"Japan will implement support worth around 750 billion yen (S$8.2 billion) in official development assistance for the next three years," Abe told a news conference following the seventh annual Japan-Mekong summit.
"The Mekong region, which has vast demand for infrastructure, is one of our most important areas," Abe said.
"Japan will contribute to infrastructure development of the region in both quality and quantity," he added. "The Mekong region and Japan are partners that will develop together." It was not immediately clear if the pledge included previously-earmarked Japanese financial assistance, or whether it was made up entirely of newly-allocated funds.
Abe has upped efforts to sell highways, train systems and power plants around the world, a key element in his bid to bolster the economy and Japan's standing abroad.
Beijing's growing financial muscle, as well as its increasing willingness to throw its diplomatic weight around, have added urgency to Japan's efforts to step up engagement in the battle for regional sway.
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said in November at a summit in Myanmar that Beijing's strategic partnership with the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) grouping was entering a "diamond decade leading to broader and deeper cooperation".
Then in March, Foreign Minister Wang Yi said China hoped to boost trade with ASEAN countries to US$500 billion this year and US$1 trillion in 2020.
Beijing's new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank has also upped the stakes, rivalling the Tokyo-backed Asian Development Bank and offering the kind of financial firepower rapidly-developing countries are keen to tap.