Japan PM Abe boosts ties with ASEAN, downplays tensions with China

Updated On: Jan 21, 2013

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has concluded a three-country visit to South-east Asia, his first foreign trip since taking office. However, he had to cut short his trip due to the hostage crisis in Algeria and did not give a planned speech on his new South-east Asia policy. Meanwhile, China has criticised the United States for appearing to support Japan in the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands dispute.

Report: Japan PM Takes Careful Approach on China During Southeast Asia Trip [Wall Street Journal, 20 Jan 2013]

Report: China Criticizes Clinton’s Remarks About Dispute With Japan Over Islands [New York Times, 20 Jan 2013]

Japan and ASEAN

Although Japan's economic links with its Asian neighbours have been growing, Japan's diplomatic relations have suffered over the past few years due to the country's political instability - with Japan having a new Prime Minister almost every year.

Mr. Abe sees closer economic links with South-east Asia as crucial to resuscitating Japan's own economy. Thailand is Japan's top trading partner, and serves as a manufacturing base for Japanese companies. As of last year, Japan is also the leading source of foreign investment in Vietnam, and Vietnam's largest aid donor.

During his visits to the countries, Mr. Abe discussed potential Japanese support for infrastructure and transport projects, and extended a new $500 million loan package for Vietnam.

Japan-China Relations, US Comments

During his visit, Mr. Abe also hinted at Japan's ongoing tensions with China, and the disputes other Asian countries have with China in the South China Sea. At a press conference in Jakarta, he said one of his principles for diplomacy was an "open ocean, ruled not by power but by law...and we and ASEAN will protect this with all our might".

But Mr. Abe also made efforts to ease friction with China, stressing that relations with China remain among Japan's "most important bilateral ties" and that any issues will be dealt with "calmly".

On Saturday, Japanese media reported that Mr. Abe is seeking a bilateral summit with China. The leader of the New Komeito Party, Natsuo Yamaguchi, is also travelling to Beijing this week. The party is a partner of Mr. Abe's LDP in the ruling coalition.

However, over the weekend, China's Foreign Ministry criticised remarks by outgoing US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton about the territorial dispute between China and Japan over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands.

Speaking in a press conference alongside Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, Mrs. Clinton said: "although the United States does not take a position on the ultimate sovereignty of the islands, we acknowledge they are under the administration of Japan and we oppose any unilateral actions that would seek to undermine Japanese administration and we urge all parties to take steps to prevent incidents and manage disagreements through peaceful means."

The reference to opposing unilateral action drew a harsh response from China's Foreign Ministry, which said Mrs. Clinton "ignores the facts and confuses right and wrong".

Earlier this month, Japan scrambled F-15 fighters in response to a Chinese surveillance plane near the disputed islands, which in turn led China to dispatch its own fighter planes. Japan has suggested it may start firing warning shots in future incidents.