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Abe plans Mekong development to counter China

TOKYO — Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will meet the leaders of five South-east Asian countries in Tokyo on Saturday to adopt a new three-year development strategy for the Mekong region — a move that will rival China’s rising economic clout in Asia.

TOKYO — Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will meet the leaders of five South-east Asian countries in Tokyo on Saturday to adopt a new three-year development strategy for the Mekong region — a move that will rival China’s rising economic clout in Asia.

The plan is likely to involve fresh Japanese aid to Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam, part of which will be covered by a five-year, US$110 billion (S$148 billion) “high-quality and innovative” infrastructure investment initiative for Asia that Mr Abe pledged in May, said Japanese officials.

With Beijing leading the new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, Japan aims to highlight differences with China over infrastructure development by utilising its technology and environmentally friendly know-how, as well as training local workers.

“The Mekong region is a major priority area for Abe’s initiative,” an official said. “Japan will continue to build infrastructure of high quality for sustainable growth of the region, with the spirit of ‘developing together’ based on a win-win relationship.”

An example concerns Japan’s planned aid to a Thai-Myanmar project developing the Dawei Special Economic Zone (SEZ) in south-eastern Myanmar. When completed, the SEZ will have a total area of 200 sq km, one of the largest in South-east Asia.

Mr Abe will announce Japan’s participation in the project in an agreement he plans to sign on Saturday with Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha and Myanmar President Thein Sein, said the Japanese officials.

The project includes the improvement of an unpaved road linking Dawei on the Andaman Sea coast to the Myanmar-Thai border checkpoint, giving Bangkok full-fledged land access to the Indian Ocean that would make Dawei a gateway of trade with India, the Middle East and Africa. Development of the road and economic zone would allow firms in Thailand, including Japanese investors, to reduce time and costs in shipping.

Development of the road would also mean the Southern Economic Corridor, a transport route linking Ho Chi Minh City and Bangkok via Phnom Penh, would be extended to Dawei, a symbolic step for increased intra-regional connectivity. Governments and businesses expect the corridor to serve as a major industrial artery in the Mekong region, especially when the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is lowering barriers to the flow of people, goods and money to launch its economic community by the end of the year.

Citing the Dawei project as a prime example, Mr Chutintorn Gongsakdi, director-general of the International Economic Affairs Department at the Thai Foreign Ministry, sought Tokyo’s help in narrowing development gaps among Mekong states, a prerequisite for greater ASEAN integration. He also called for Japanese investment in sustainable areas such as human-resource development to help the region pursue high-quality growth.

Mr Sok Siphana, adviser to Cambodia’s government, shared a similar view. “How Japan can play a good role in building industrial capacity in the region, how to transform the Mekong sub-region into an economic group that can play a role in stimulating the regional economy —this is what we expect. We see Japan’s role quite a bit in terms of developing human resources, engineering infrastructure, soft and hard infrastructure for connectivity. The issue is how to link the Mekong region to ASEAN, and ASEAN to a larger Asia,” he said. KYODO NEWS

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