COLOMBO/DHAKA (Reuters) - Shinzo Abe on Sunday became the first Japanese prime minister to visit Sri Lanka in 24 years, on the second leg of a South Asian tour that sought to assert Tokyo’s interest in a region where it has ceded influence to China.
Abe was greeted by Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa at Colombo’s international airport, where a new passenger terminal will be built with the help of a $330 million Japanese development loan.
The two leaders struck “a new partnership between maritime countries” that reflects Japan’s interest in keeping open shipping lanes that supply oil and liquefied natural gas from the Middle East to feed its energy-dependent economy.
“The president and I shared the view on building friendly ties and partnership between the two maritime countries,” Abe said after the meeting.
Asian great-power diplomacy has stirred into life since the rise to power of Indian nationalist Narendra Modi, who announced his intent to play an active role on the world stage by inviting regional leaders to his inauguration in May.
Abe comes to India’s backyard after hosting Modi for summit talks that yielded a Japanese pledge to invest $34 billion in India and launched a “special, strategic global partnership” to deepen security cooperation.
The Japanese premier pre-empts Chinese President Xi Jinping, who travels to India and Sri Lanka later this month.
“They (the Japanese) are aware that we are beholden to China’s influence in many ways, so they would like to counter that,” Nanda Godaga, a retired Sri Lankan diplomat who follows Japanese foreign policy, said before Abe’s visit.
China has financed the construction of a $500 million port terminal for Colombo as part of efforts to build a ‘21st-century maritime silk road’, but Tokyo plays down any notion that Asia’s two largest economies are entering a geopolitical contest.
“We are not going to become a big superpower ... we have a lot of investment in China,” Abe’s spokesman, Kenko Sone, told a briefing in the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka on Sunday morning.
“We have some difficulties with them but we prefer to solve those issues through discussions.”
In Bangladesh on Saturday, Abe followed up on commitments for Japanese business to invest 600 billion yen ($5.7 billion) in infrastructure projects, and won Dhaka’s support for Tokyo’s bid for a temporary seat on the United Nations Security Council.
Writing by Douglas Busvine; Editing by Kevin Liffey