Japan PM Shinzo Abe heads to Myanmar on sales mission

TOKYO (AFP) - Prime Minister Shinzo Abe flies to Myanmar Friday bearing almost US$1 billion (S$1.25 billion) in development aid and a plan for a nationwide electricity grid as Japan tries to grab the box seats in the country's quickening development.

Mr Abe follows in the footsteps of other world leaders who have flocked to the former pariah state since it was welcomed back to the international community after a nominally civilian government was installed.

In the first visit by a Japanese premier since 1977, Mr Abe will be playing the role of salesman-in-chief for Japan Inc as part of an attempt to treble the value of infrastructure exports to help revive his country's slumbering economy.

Diplomatic niceties were being observed ahead of the trip, with a foreign ministry official saying Tokyo wanted to help at a time of rapid change in Myanmar.

The visit will "show that both the public and private sectors of Japan will provide full-fledged support to Myanmar's efforts toward democratisation, enhancement of the rule of law, marketisation and national reconciliation," he said.

Mr Abe, whose approval ratings at home are sky-high on the back of encouraging economic figures and healthy stock market gains, will spend three days in Myanmar, the official said.

A report by the business daily Nikkei on Thursday said he would be announcing 100 billion yen (S$1.2 billion) in development aid.

Abe will be accompanied by a 40-strong business delegation including chief executive officers of some of Japan's top companies, including trading houses Mitsubishi, Mitsui, Marubeni and Sumitomo, and infrastructure firms Taisei and JGC, the official said.

During Abe's visit, Japan will lay out a basic plan for the development of electric power infrastructure in Myanmar by 2030, including a proposal to use green technologies in which Japanese companies such as Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Hitachi and Toshiba have an edge, the Nikkei report said.

The premier said last week he wanted Japan to sell infrastructure worth 30 trillion yen by 2020 and pledged to travel around the world to make sales pitches.

Former junta-ruled Myanmar is an obvious destination for Mr Abe; it needs investment to spur growth and replace its dilapidated infrastructure, while export-reliant Japan is hunting new opportunities in the resource-rich nation to offset sluggish domestic growth.

Outside the economic agenda, Mr Abe is expected to raise the issue of Myanmar's ethnic minorities, following episodes of communal bloodshed in recent months, the official said.

"The next two to three years are important not only for the ASEAN countries but also for our bilateral relations," he said, noting that Myanmar will assume the chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations next year and that "there are many things to be done" in Myanmar's political reform.

"The biggest message to Myanmar... is that the Abe administration thinks that the ASEAN countries are very important to Japan and Myanmar is the only country that neither the foreign minister nor the prime minister has yet visited," he said.

As well as a Sunday summit with President Thein Sein, Mr Abe will on Saturday meet democracy icon and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who was in Japan last month.

Unlike its Western allies, Japan maintained trade ties and dialogue with Myanmar during years of junta rule which ended in 2011, saying a hard line could push it closer to key ally China.

"Myanmar... urgently needs concrete assistance from Japan," an official from the Myanmar presidential office, who did not want to be named, told AFP.

"Japan will be able to help in technology, banking, currency markets, human resource development, trade, investment, agriculture, factories, debt relief, increasing assistance and infrastructure," he said.

The two countries in December agreed to start work this year on a huge industrial zone near Yangon.

In January, Japanese finance minister Taro Aso said Japan will stand by pledges to waive Myanmar's debt and extend new loans.

Japan's previous government announced in April 2012 that it would forgive 300 billion yen of the 500 billion yen owed by Myanmar, following a string of dramatic political reforms.