Japan to raise profile overseas with new embassies
At least six new embassies planned as Tokyo aims to address Beijing's growing influence
Japan is planning an aggressive expansion of its overseas diplomatic presence as Tokyo fears it is slipping behind Beijing's efforts to win new friends and influence governments around the world.
Tokyo is planning to open six new embassies in 2014, and a spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs confirmed that it had applied to the central government for funds for the diplomatic outposts to raise the nation's profile around the world.
Two additional embassies are being opened this year, in the newly independent South Sudan and in Iceland, bringing the total number to 136. China, however, has diplomats stationed permanently in 164 nations.
National broadcaster NHK announced that new Japanese embassies would be set up in the Kingdom of Bhutan and the Republic of the Marshal Islands, neither of which have diplomatic ties with China.
Embassies will also be established in Turkmenistan, the Republic of Namibia, Armenia and Barbados, from where a larger part of the Caribbean will be served.
"Japan and China have a number of common interests in Africa, other parts of Asia and the eastern Pacific, as well as being in a similar geographical position, so geopolitical rivalries will always be in people's minds when Tokyo does something like this," said Jun Okumura, an international relations analyst with the Eurasia Group, political risk consultants.
"I imagine that the officials of the People's Liberation Army will certainly be putting that spin on it as soon as it is formally announced."
Okumura suggested that Japan was attempting to build closer ties with Turkmenistan - which supplies natural gas to China via a pipeline - due to its own energy needs, while another consideration might be as a counterbalance to Russia as Tokyo and Moscow prepare to debate the future of the islands off northern Japan that were seized by forces of the Soviet Union in the dying days of the second world war.
Namibia is significant as Japan looks to raise its profile on the African continent, where China has wooed governments with aid and deals for resources.
In the Pacific, Okumura said, Tokyo was apparently hoping that a closer relationship with the Marshall Islands could lessen China's expansionist aims.
The new embassies fit well with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's emphasis on fostering international ties. He was in Bahrain at the weekend, the first stop before Kuwait, Djibouti and Qatar.
Okumura said: "A high level of diplomatic activity is useful and important to Japan. The fact that there has been a rapid turnover of Japanese prime ministers in the last five or six years means that we have lost some of our influence in this area."