Japan’s new Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has chosen to visit South-east Asia in his first foreign trip this week. The aim is to show Japan’s commitment to the region by strengthening economic and defence ties with two important players – Vietnam, the current chair of Asean; and Indonesia, the largest nation in the grouping and a key leader. Tokyo also hopes to gain Asean’s backing for its Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) vision, seen by some to contain elements of strategic competition with China. Mr Suga’s trip comes at a time when Tokyo is seeking to counter China’s growing assertiveness in a region that is important to Japan both strategically and economically.
Much of Japan’s trade, including its crucial energy imports, flows through the South China Sea where China has territorial disputes with several Asean members and has built military installations on several artificial islands. Keeping the sea lanes of the disputed waters open is important. And how the Asean states manage their disputes with China could have a bearing on how Japan’s own territorial dispute with China over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands plays out. Tokyo’s efforts to strengthen ties with the region are welcome.
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