Japan's Abe turns to South East Asia to counter China
By Linda Sieg and Jonathan Thatcher
TOKYO/JAKARTA (Reuters) - The last time he was prime minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe's inaugural foreign trip was to China. In the job again 7 years later and relations with Beijing now chilly, Abe is turning first this time to the rising economic stars of Southeast Asia.
A hawkish Abe wants them to help counterbalance the growing economic and military might of China at a time when Japan needs new sources of growth for its languishing economy and is debating whether to make its own military more muscular.
But experts warn he will have to tread carefully during his visits to Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia, beginning on Wednesday, to avoid provoking China by appearing to be trying to "contain" it.
China is also scouring the region in search of investment and trade opportunities and sources of raw materials. But it is also clashing with countries in the region over territorial rows in the South China Sea, as well as with Japan over tiny isles in the East China Sea.
Moreover, Abe may find his hosts keen to avoid upsetting China, now their major economic partner as well.
"The Japanese government 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.
Abe had hoped to go first to Washington after his Liberal Democratic Party's (LDP) big win in an election last month, in order to bolster a security alliance with his country's main ally. But because U.S. President Barack Obama was too busy, Abe will start with members of the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
Japanese companies are already eyeing Southeast Asia as an alternative to investment in China after a long-simmering feud over disputed islands in the East China Sea flared up last year, sparking protests in China and hurting trade. Continued...