Tough pitch nearer home for Japan's 'top salesman

Tough pitch nearer home for Japan's 'top salesman
Mr Shinzo Abe at the Chidorigafuchi national war memorial cemetery in Tokyo on August 15, 2013.

TOKYO - Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is, without doubt, the most well-travelled Japanese leader in recent years. Since taking office last December, he has visited more than 15 countries, including Mongolia. But it is the red carpet from Japan's two closest neighbours that eludes him.

This weekend, he leaves for Bahrain, Kuwait and Qatar - his second visit to the Middle East - to discuss energy policy and security. He is also adding a side trip to visit Japanese troops stationed in Djibouti to help combat piracy off the coast of the Horn of Africa.

Mr Abe has also vowed to go to Brunei, Laos and Cambodia by October, possibly with a team of businessmen in tow, thereby completing visits to all 10 ASEAN states, an unusual achievement for a Japanese premier, especially one who is not even a year in office.

Mr Abe is seeking not only to deepen ties but also to win the support of ASEAN states in dealing with China, which is proving to be an increasingly worrisome player in the region.

Still, his purpose in wooing ASEAN is, first and foremost, to open up more business opportunities for Japanese firms, just as he has done on trips to other regions.

Calling himself Japan's "top salesman", Mr Abe has pushed the country's nuclear power technology in Turkey and Poland, and its infrastructural know-how to countries in South-east Asia.

But the promise of generous funding to foreign governments does not necessarily give Japan the edge in bidding for contracts.

Recent reports say Japanese consortiums failed to win two tenders in Myanmar, one to upgrade Yangon International Airport and another to build the new Hanthawaddy airport.

Despite Mr Abe's promises of 91 billion yen (S$1.2 billion) in cheap yen loans and 190 billion yen in debt waivers during a May visit, Myanmar awarded the projects to international groups that include Chinese and South Korean firms.

Japanese firms won a project to repair and operate the airport in Mandalay that is worth far less.

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