Looking South

LOOKING SOUTH

With a wary eye on Beijing and a determination to raise Tokyo's regional profile, Japan's Shinzo Abe is heading to southeast Asia this week on his first trip abroad after he was sworn in as prime minister last month.

Abe wanted to make his first foreign visit to Washington for an early meeting with President Barack Obama to strengthen the alliance with the United States amidst the deepening military tensions with China. But problems in scheduling a meeting with Obama, who will begin his second term next week, have delayed Abe's trip to Washington.

Abe's journey to the south comes as the region becomes the theatre of great-power rivalry. As China's economic weight and political influence grows in southeast Asia, there is anxious search for a stable balance of power in the region.

At the end of last year, Obama became the first American president to travel to Myanmar and Cambodia. Last month, India and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) elevated their ties to a strategic partnership.

This year also marks the 40th anniversary of Japan's relations with the ASEAN. Abe's visit ends Japan's political neglect of the region in the last few years. The most recent bilateral visits to southeast Asia by a Japanese premier have been to Thailand in 2002 and Indonesia in 2007.

The new importance of southeast Asia in Abe's foreign policy calculus has been highlighted by travel to the region in the last couple of weeks by his senior cabinet colleagues.

Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso travelled to Myanmar within days of the new government taking charge in Tokyo. Last week, Japan's new foreign minister, Fumio Kishida, swung through the Philippines, Brunei, Singapore and Australia.

Abe's four-day trip, beginning Wednesday, will take him to Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia. During the visit, the Japanese premier is expected to announce the contours of his government's basic policies towards Asia.

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