Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is stepping up diplomatic efforts to strengthen Japan's ties with a valued energy source and a strategic neighbor by visiting Mongolia, a move also intended to check the growing influence of China in the region.
Meeting with Mongolian leaders on March 30, Abe underscored the importance of bilateral relations, particularly from the standpoint of guaranteeing Japanese energy security.
“We want to bolster ties with Mongolia with the objective of creating a good makeup of various energy sources,” Abe told a joint news conference with Prime Minister Norov Altankhuyag in Ulan Bator later that day.
“Mongolia is an energy giant, and both countries can create a win-win relationship, with Japan’s technological prowess.”
Abe chose Mongolia over other potential nations to visit such as Malaysia and Micronesia, although diplomats were concerned that visiting a nation neighboring China would be too “provocative.”
But Abe proceeded to step up diplomacy with Mongolia to strengthen Japan’s ties with nations that value freedom and democracy. He is seeking to “build close relations with nations that share similar values,” according to one of his aides, an initiative started during his first term as prime minister from 2006-2007. He is the first Japanese prime minister to visit Mongolia, which borders with China to the south, since Junichiro Koizumi's visit in 2006.
Abe and Altankhuyag agreed to accelerate talks toward the establishment of an economic partnership agreement between the two nations.
Under the so-called “Erch” (vitality in Mongolian) initiative, Japan will encourage its private sector to invest in the development of the Tavan Tolgoi coal mine, one of the largest in the world, as well as rare earths and other minerals. Abe also promised to provide technical assistance to Mongolia to help it tackle its air pollution problems.
Altankhuyag said that Mongolia will try to ensure a long-term stable supply of coal for Japan.
The two leaders also agreed to start a policy dialogue to bolster cooperation among Japan, Mongolia and the United States.
The visit to Mongolia marked the beginning of a series of diplomatic offensives by the Japanese prime minister.
Abe is expected to visit Russia and countries in the Middle East during the national Golden Week holidays, spanning from late April to early May, to be followed by a visit to South Korea in late May for a summit with leaders of South Korea and China.
In June, he is scheduled to participate in the G-8 summit in Britain.
Abe’s visit to Mongolia came after Yasuhisa Shiozaki, former chief Cabinet secretary during Abe’s first term, stressed the strategic importance of Mongolia, which is sandwiched by China and Russia.
Shiozaki, now deputy chairman of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s Policy Research Council, visited Mongolia in early March carrying Abe’s personal letter for Mongolian leaders.
Senior officials at the Japanese government also pushed for Abe’s visit, with the recent flare-up of the territorial dispute with China over the Senkaku Islands in Japan’s southernmost prefecture.
Acting to bolster Japan’s ties with Mongolia may “give a wake-up call to China,” one of the officials said.
Despite the visit, Abe stressed that Tokyo does not intend to heighten tensions with Beijing.
“We are aware that Japan and China are now facing a difficult time, but we have no intention whatsoever of making the first move to escalate" the tensions, Abe told the news conference, answering questions from reporters.
But Chinese officials expressed alarm over Abe’s choice of Mongolia.
“(The visit) made it clear that Japan is pursuing a diplomatic policy to counter China,” a source close to the Chinese Foreign Ministry said.
Abe’s visit to Mongolia pinpointed China’s “weak point” in diplomacy, said Shi Yihong, professor of international relations at Renmin University of China.
“In contrast to Japan, which has long provided other Asian countries with official economic aid, China has failed to pay attention to its neighbors in regards to diplomacy,” Shi said.
However, the value of trade between China and Mongolia grew nearly 20 times over a 10-year period from 2002.
“China’s relations with Mongolia are now the best ever in Chinese history,” said Wang Xiaolong, Chinese ambassador to Mongolia.
But the two nations are still not in a honeymoon phase, politically.
Mongolians harbor mixed feelings toward China as a result of past military conflicts.
In addition, resentment persists among the Mongolian public that Chinese developers have monopolized profits from their joint development of natural resources.
In an effort to mend bilateral ties, Wu Bangguo, then chairman of the Standing Committee of China's National People's Congress and the second highest-ranking official in the Chinese communist leadership, visited Mongolia to meet with President Tsakhia Elbegdorj in January.
Wu called for strengthening of strategic ties between the two neighbors.
(This article was written by Kotaro Ono in Ulan Bator and Nozomu Hayashi in Beijing.)
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