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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.
Previews of the main speech, to be made in Jakarta, have suggested the premier will announce the "Abe Doctrine" that will spell out new initiatives to deepen Japan's economic, political and security ties with southeast Asia.
Abe's emphasis is likely to be on developing strategic economic relations with the region amidst China's emergence as the largest trading partner for most nations in southeast Asia.
As deteriorating relations with Beijing threaten the future of Japan's massive trade and investment ties to China, Japan has another reason to look at southeast Asia as a major alternative destination for Japanese overseas investment.
Like Japan, some ASEAN members, especially the Philippines and Vietnam, are locked in escalating maritime disputes with China. Abe would want to translate the shared concerns on China's assertiveness into concrete political cooperation between Tokyo and the ASEAN as a collective, and bilaterally with key individual members.
Security cooperation (with countries other than the US) is no longer a taboo in Japan's foreign policy. Tokyo announced plans last year to offer 10 coast guard vessels to Manila, which has been desperately seeking foreign support to cope with the Chinese navy's manoeuvres in the waters adjacent to the Philippines.
Last week, Kishida promised Manila Japan would quickly implement the decision and discussed the financing of the transfer through a credit from Tokyo. The Philippines, in turn, has backed Tokyo's plans to boost the capabilities of Japan's armed forces.
The incipient maritime security cooperation between Tokyo and Manila has drawn sharp comment from Beijing. In a stinging editorial, the China Daily said: "The Philippines, which suffered Japanese atrocities during World War II, has surprisingly supported the revival of militarism in Japan, which has the tacit backing of the United States."
Until recently, Japan, a major donor of development assistance, was very careful in avoiding military ties with its Asian neighbours. Shedding some of that inhibition in recent years, Tokyo has signed declarations on security cooperation with India and Australia.
Japan has provided limited military aid recently to East Timor and Cambodia. It is also reported to be in talks with Vietnam to train its submarine crews. Abe's southern sojourn this week could reveal how far he is willing to advance Japan's new military diplomacy.
The writer is a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, Delhi and a contributing editor for 'The Indian Express'