Japan PM to visit PNG on Australia-New Zealand tour: report

TOKYO (AFP) - Shinzo Abe will next month become the first Japanese prime minister in three decades to visit Papua New Guinea, after a huge liquified natural gas project came onstream, a report said Thursday.

Mr Abe will visit PNG as part of a tour starting July 6 that will also include visits to Australia and New Zealand, Kyodo News reported, citing a government source.

The report comes as the Pacific country emerges as a source of fuel for energy-hungry Japan, and follows the first shipment of liquefied natural gas from a landmark US$19 billion (S$23.7 billion) project in PNG last month.

During the trip, Mr Abe is expected to discuss cooperation in maritime security with his opposite numbers in the Oceanic countries, the report said.

A foreign ministry official in charge of Oceanic affairs refused to confirm that the tour was taking place, saying: "At this point there is nothing we can say about it."

Japanese bureaucrats customarily avoid commenting on diplomatic movements until shortly before they happen, although Australia's foreign minister Julie Bishop revealed during a visit to Tokyo last week that Mr Abe would go to Canberra in July.

If Mr Abe visits PNG, he will be the first Japanese prime minister to do so since Yasuhiro Nakasone in 1985.

In April, Japan and Australia reached a long-awaited free trade deal when Prime Minister Tony Abbott visited Tokyo.

Tokyo and Canberra also agreed this month to boost their defence ties, moving towards a possible future submarine deal.

Mr Abe has had a hectic diplomatic schedule since coming to power in late 2012, as he pursues his twin aims of boosting Japan's exporters and bolstering ties at a time of disquiet over the rise of China.

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