With visits to all 10 ASEAN nations, Abe's China containment strategy complete

November 18, 2013


VIENTIANE--Prime Minister Shinzo Abe closed out a two-day visit to Laos and Cambodia, completing a swing to all 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to rally support for his push to counter China's growing presence.

In Laos and Cambodia, he promoted economic cooperation and discussed security issues in the context of China exerting more influence in the region.

"We've gained support (from Laos) for our policy of 'proactive contribution to peace,' " said Abe at a joint news conference in the Laotian capital. "We will enhance our communication."

On the day of his Nov. 17 departure for home, Abe met with his Laotian counterpart Thongsing Thammavong at the prime minister's office in Vientiane. At the joint news conference after the meeting, Abe touched on the two countries' decision to hold regular security meetings between their respective foreign and defense authorities.

Since his Liberal Democratic Party returned to power last December, Abe has made five round trips to visit all 10 ASEAN countries. It marked the first time that a Japanese prime minister has visited all ASEAN nations while in office.

Abe put priority on discussing security issues during his visits, with the goal of containing China.

The Philippines and Vietnam both have territorial disputes with China over islets in the South China Sea. As Japan is locked in a similar dispute with China over the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, Abe has been demanding that Asian waters become free, open and stable.

The prime minister is counting on the Philippines and Vietnam to fall in line with Japan.

Last week, Japan decided to send 1,180 Self-Defense Forces personnel to the typhoon-hit Philippines. It will be one of Japan's largest international emergency relief missions to date.

"That response is aimed at holding China in check as well," said a Japanese government source of the deployment.

With prospects for a Japan-China summit still murky, Tokyo has been working to build a coalition to counter Beijing through diplomatic efforts.

However, it may be difficult for Japan to quickly rein in China, Asia's largest economy, since it has invested heavily in some ASEAN countries, including Laos and Cambodia.

Abe chose the two nations as his last stops on his ASEAN tour because they are considered "pro-China."

"China's investments are creating employment," said an entrepreneur close to Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen in Phnom Penh on Nov. 16 during Abe's visit. "We thank Japan for its assistance, but its influence is second to that of China."

According to the Cambodian special economic zone board, Beijing invested $9.3 billion (931.6 billion yen) in Cambodia between 1994 and 2012, compared with Tokyo's investment of $650 million during the same period.

China has also been investing heavily in Laos and Myanmar.

There remains a significant economic discrepancy between the six relatively wealthy countries that joined ASEAN in early stages, Thailand and Indonesia, for example, and the remaining four nations--Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam--that gained entry after the end of the Cold War.

Beijing is apparently focusing its investment on relatively poor countries as a means to wield greater influence in the region.

Since China's new president, Xi Jinping, took office, China has proposed concluding a good-neighbor treaty with ASEAN countries, and holding regular meetings among defense ministers.

Such diplomatic efforts point to Beijing's continuing ambition to strengthen its influence in Southeast Asia, not only in terms of trade and investment, but also in security matters.

ASEAN countries were divided during the Cold War, and nowadays are eager to maintain balanced relations with more powerful nations.

With the United States and China grappling for influence in the region, some ASEAN nations have openly sought aid from Japan because that is not tied to Chinese and U.S. ambitions.

They have also asked Japan to build a new form of partnership with them instead of just offering aid.

At the Nov. 17 news conference in Vientiane, Abe also said that a summit meeting between Japan and ASEAN members scheduled for December in Tokyo may help Japan change conventional relations with such states.

"We hope that (the planned summit) will be a good opportunity to bring the relationship between Japan and ASEAN members to a new level," Abe said.

(This article was compiled from reports by Norihisa Hoshino and Ryosuke Ono.)

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Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, right, greets Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during a welcoming ceremony at the Peace Palace in Phnom Penh on Nov. 16. (AP Photo)

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, right, greets Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during a welcoming ceremony at the Peace Palace in Phnom Penh on Nov. 16. (AP Photo)

  • Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, right, greets Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during a welcoming ceremony at the Peace Palace in Phnom Penh on Nov. 16. (AP Photo)

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