Japan's Shinzo Abe set to build bridges in Laos, Cambodia visits
Analysts in Tokyo warn that the Japanese leader won't dislodge China as the most-favoured nation in the two Asean countries
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe arrives in Cambodia today before going on to Laos tomorrow on state visits that have been arranged at very short notice and are designed to build bridges between Tokyo and the two Association of Southeast Asian Nations states.
And while Beijing will undoubtedly be watching Abe's moves very closely, analysts in Tokyo believe it is unlikely that the Japanese leader will be able to wrench the two nations out of China's sphere of influence.
That does not mean the new suitor will be spurned out of hand, however, as Cambodia and Laos look to play the two regional superpowers off against one another to their maximum benefit.
"It's all part of the geopolitical game," said Jun Okumura, a visiting scholar at the Meiji Institute for Global Affairs.
"China is already very chummy with these countries, but everyone is aware that if Japan tries harder to build new working relationships with Cambodia and Laos, then Beijing will have to respond and try harder," he said.
And while that does carry with it the danger of over-investment in an economy, Okumura warned, the benefits of assistance to these two states will spill over into neighbouring nations and eventually be felt throughout the region.
"And that has to be good for peace in southeast Asia," Okumura said.
Cambodia and Laos are the last two Asean member states for Abe to visit since being elected in December last year.
In his meetings with leaders of other nations in the region, the Japanese leader has pointedly expressed his support for their respective positions in disputes with China over the sovereignty of island groups and large areas of the South China Sea.
Japan has agreed to provide the Philippines with 10 modern patrol ships, which will be useful for the government in Manila to monitor Chinese activities in disputed waters, while an agreement has been forged with Indonesia on co-operation to protect key sea lanes from pirates.
And while some of these deals are not aimed directly at containing China, they are important in tying nations more closely to Japan and its bloc of supporters.
Abe will be aware, however, of the close ties that exist between Cambodia, Laos and China, and is likely to soft-pedal on promises of assistance.
In Cambodia, for example, he will exchange a memorandum of understanding on co-operation in the medical field, including providing details on the creation of medical insurance systems.
In Laos, an advance team is already in discussions with local authorities on co-operation in the training of doctors and nurses, as well as providing remote medical care via the internet.
Announcing the visit on Thursday, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a press conference: "Through these visits, we want to enhance cooperation in a wide range of areas, including the economy, politics, security and cultural exchanges."
Japan knows it is in no position to challenge China's influence in Phnom Penh or Vientiane and is content to try to win points by promoting democracy and institution building.
"I'm sure that China's legions of 'netizens' will have something to say about Mr Abe's visit, but I do not believe they will see this as a serious threat in China's halls of power," said Okumura.
"It will not dislodge China from its place as very much most-favoured nation."