Japan PM Abe lands in India to push closer ties

NEW DELHI (AFP) - Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe arrived in New Delhi on Saturday to push for closer commercial and strategic ties with India, as Tokyo seeks to offset Beijing's growing regional might.

Since coming to power in 2012 Mr Abe has trotted the globe, partly in his self-appointed role as salesman for Japan Inc., but also to seek counterweights to superpower China.

Mr Abe, received at the airport by Indian government officials, told The Times of India daily in an interview published on Saturday that he wants to "develop vigorously" economic and security cooperation with India.

Mr Abe's trip comes as Japan and China are locked in a bitter territorial row over islands in the East China Sea that Asia's two largest economies both claim.

The Japanese prime minister urged Beijing on Friday to come to the table for "vital" summit talks, after being quoted as comparing current Japan-China relations with ties between Germany and Britain before the outbreak of World War One.

Mr Abe told the Times of India the "security environment of the Asia-Pacific region is becoming ever more severe".

Japan fears China is seeking to exert control over key shipping lanes around its vast coastline.

Japan and India, already carrying out joint maritime exercises, "play a vital role together for the security of sea lanes," Mr Abe said.

India, which has its own simmering Himalayan border row with China that erupted into a brief, bloody war in 1962, has said all "regional issues" including tensions with Beijing would be discussed.

India too has been working to boost relations with Japan, Thailand, Vietnam and other Asian nations as it seeks to offset rival Beijing's rise.

"We hope the visit will lead to a deepening and strengthening of our strategic and global partnership," Indian foreign ministry spokesman Syed Akbaruddin said ahead of Mr Abe's trip.

Mr Abe, accompanied by a Japanese business delegation, was making his second official trip to India and was due to attend the annual summit between the nations.

His visit follows the first official trip to India last month by Japan's emperor and empress, billed by New Delhi as a "landmark" goodwill symbol.

Mr Abe, who was due to meet his Indian counterpart Manmohan Singh and other leaders, will be "chief guest" at India's Republic Day parade Sunday that showcases the nation's military might and cultural richness.

India and Japan will also work on wrapping up a civilian nuclear deal.

"We are looking forward to negotiating an agreement on the peaceful uses of nuclear energy," said Mr Gautam Bambawale, India's foreign affairs official in charge of East Asia relations.

As part of a packed agenda, Japan hopes also to push the sale of its search and rescue ShinMaywa US-2 planes.

The planes would be unarmed, so as not to break Tokyo's self-imposed prohibition on military exports.

"It will take a bit of time I am sure because defence equipment is always something difficult to transfer," said Mr Bambawale.

But with Mr Abe saying he wants to review Tokyo's ban on weapons exports, such a sale might open the door to Japan for sale of military equipment to India, a huge arms importer, analysts say.

New Delhi, which is seeking US$1 trillion in investment over five years to upgrade the country's infrastructure and bolster stuttering economic growth, is also looking for investment from Tokyo.

"We want Japanese technology; secondly we want Japanese capital, investment into India; and thirdly we want Japanese modern management practices," said Mr Bambawale.

Tokyo is already India's fourth-largest investor, pumping in US$15 billion in the last 13 years and involved in building the Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor, a huge US$90-billion project linking India's capital with financial hub Mumbai.

The Nikkei economic daily reported on Friday that Mr Abe would announce US$2 billion in low-interest loans to India to build subway lines and energy-saving projects.