Japan PM travels to Bangladesh, Sri Lanka to offset China influence

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe shaking hands with Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina following his arrival at the Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport in Dhaka on Sept 6, 2014. Mr Abe arrived in Dhaka for a three-day visit to Bangladesh a
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe shaking hands with Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina following his arrival at the Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport in Dhaka on Sept 6, 2014. Mr Abe arrived in Dhaka for a three-day visit to Bangladesh and Sri Lanka aimed at offsetting China's mounting influence in South Asia. -- PHOTO: AFP

DHAKA (AFP) - Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe arrived in Dhaka on Saturday at the start of a three-day visit to Bangladesh and Sri Lanka aimed at offsetting China’s mounting influence in South Asia.

Mr Abe, who is visiting the region to boost economic and security ties, was greeted by Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina at Dhaka airport. The two were to hold talks later on Saturday, and on Sunday, Mr Abe will meet Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse in Colombo.

During his visit, Mr Abe won Dhaka’s support for Tokyo’s bid for a non-permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council. Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina said Dhaka would withdraw its candidacy in favour of Tokyo in view of Japan’s “continued and strong support in Bangladesh’s development process”. Ms Hasina’s announcement came after her official summit with Mr Abe.

Dhaka has been campaigning for a Security Council seat for years, but local officials said Japan’s commitment to invest in some of the country’s key infrastructure projects changed its decision.

The tour follows Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's trip to Tokyo earlier in the week during which the two countries, whose relations with giant neighbour China are prickly, agreed to raise ties to a "new level".

Speaking to reporters before leaving Tokyo, Mr Abe noted he was the first Japanese premier to visit Bangladesh in 14 years and Sri Lanka in 24 years. He called Bangladesh and Sri Lanka "countries with a growing influence in economic and political domains".

"I hope to introduce the dynamism of both countries to Japan's economy by strengthening relations with them and engaging in top-level sales activities," said Abe, who is accompanied by 50 top Japanese corporate executives.

Bangladesh, which described Mr Abe's tour as a "milestone" in relations, hopes to win Japanese investment for infrastructure projects including a railway bridge and a tunnel under the mighty Brahmaputra river.

"This time what we want is investment," Bangladesh foreign minister A.H. Mahmood Ali said. "This visit is considered a milestone in our relations."

Bangladesh's premier visited Japan in May when Tokyo announced US$6 billion (S$7.5 million) in aid for Dhaka. The deal was a boost to Hasina, coming months after she won a disputed election marred by widespread fraud and an opposition boycott.

Dhaka last month announced Japan would lend US$4 billion for an ambitious coal-fired power plant project, which includes a deep-sea terminal and a township. Bangladesh plans to set up an industrial park for Japanese investors, whose investment in the country is far below sums extended by China or South Korea.

As Japan and Bangladesh compete for a non-permanent UN Security Council seat for the 2015-2016 term, Abe and Hasina will discuss how to defuse any dispute, local media reports said.

Japan's state aid agency has shown interest in building a deep-sea port in Bangladesh's south for which Dhaka earlier approached China.

Bangladesh and Sri Lanka lie along sea lanes between the resources-rich Middle East and East Asia. China has helped build ports in countries along the vital shipping route.

In Colombo, Mr Abe and Mr Rajapaksa aim to strengthen maritime territorial cooperation in the face of a more territorially assertive China, media reports said. Japan is ready to provide patrol boats to help Sri Lanka bolster its maritime guard, according to the reports.