Japanese PM Shinzo Abe keen to boost ties with Myanmar
Japanese leader seeks an edge over China by becoming his country's first prime minister to visit the former rogue state since 1977
Shinzo Abe arrives in Myanmar today for a three-day visit intended to boost trade between the countries, the first time a Japanese leader will have visited the country in more than 35 years.
With China's influence over the democratic Myanmese government slipping, Japan is hoping to develop economic and security ties.
Abe is keen to increase dialogue on regional affairs and security issues, an area that Beijing is likely to be monitoring closely, particularly given that three Maritime Self-Defence Force ships are scheduled to make a port call in Myanmar in October.
In January, Taro Aso, the deputy prime minister, pledged to ease the 500 billion yen (HK$37.73 billion) that Myanmar owes Japan and offered to provide an additional 50 billion yen to develop a new special economic zone close to Thilawa port.
Abe is expected to go one step further with Japan's largesse and announce US$1 billion in development aid as well as a basic plan for the development of a comprehensive electric power infrastructure when he meets with President Thein Sein.
Before his departure, Abe told Kyodo News: "I will not hold back from any co-operation. Myanmar is a friend from long ago and a pro-Japanese country."
Jun Okumura, an international relations analyst with the Eurasia Group, said Japan's growing clout in the region would be welcomed by the US.
"There is a sense that Japan is getting a leg-up in the campaign for influence in Southeast Asia. This is not something that the Japanese government would explicitly say, although it's fairly obvious," he said.
Abe will be travelling with an entourage of representatives of 30 of Japan's largest companies, with the proposals for the electricity project grabbing the headlines. This sector is considered ripe for Japanese investors, which have off-the-shelf technology that can be applied to a country that has struggled to introduce a comprehensive system as a result of the international embargoes imposed on the former ruling military junta. Telecommunications giants Sumitomo Corp, NEC and NTT announced this week that they had signed a contract with Myanmar to construct an optical fibre-based telecom network to link the nation's three largest cities, while Japan Post Co's postal management system is also to be transplanted into Myanmar.
Other areas in which Myanmar has requested Japan's assistance are vocational training and agricultural education.
In return, Japan will call on the government to follow through with reforms and promote national reconciliation with ethnic minorities.
The timing of the Japanese leader's visit is significant, it has been pointed out, with this weekend previously set aside for a three-way summit between China, South Korea and Japan. Shortly after Abe confirmed that he would take part in the talks, Beijing requested that they be delayed because of the continuing dispute over the sovereignty of the Senkaku islands, which China claims as the Diaoyus.
Abe moved quickly to visit Myanmar, becoming the first Japanese leader to do so since Takeo Fukuda in August 1977.
"Until recently, Myanmar has been a military dictatorship and they had little choice about who they did business with, which is why they were friendly with China," said Okumura.
"But China tends not to have good relations with its neighbours and these other countries are always wary about border clashes - as we have seen recently with India, Vietnam, the Philippines and so on," he added.