Japan vows quality infrastructure in Mekong region in push for Free and Open Indo-Pacific

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe delivers a speech at the 10th Mekong-Japan Summit in Tokyo on Oct 9, 2018.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe delivers a speech at the 10th Mekong-Japan Summit in Tokyo on Oct 9, 2018.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

TOKYO - Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Tuesday (Oct 9) pledged to promote quality infrastructure projects in five South-east Asian nations along the Mekong River, while their leaders said they supported Japan's Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy (FOIPS).

"The Mekong region is a corridor that connects East Asia and South Asia, as well as a land bridge that links the Pacific Ocean to the Indian Ocean," Mr Abe said at the outset of the 10th Mekong-Japan Summit in Tokyo.

Japan will assist Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar in at least 150 projects under a new blueprint - Tokyo Strategy 2018 for Mekong-Japan Cooperation - which runs from 2019 to 2021.

These projects will centre on three areas: Building effective connectivity, such as expanding airport facilities in Laos and road construction in Myanmar; building people-centred societies, such as through the use of technology to improve healthcare; as well as environment and disaster management, such as irrigation projects in Cambodia.

Japan and China have long been vying for influence in South-east Asia, with Beijing extending infrastructure carrots under its much vaunted Belt and Road Initiative.

While Japan knows its coffers are not as deep as China's, it touts its superiority in quality infrastructure while committing to follow through on completed projects by training local workers.

The Mekong-Japan Summit has been held yearly since 2009, with leaders meeting once every three years in Tokyo where they review progress of the previous blueprint and adopt a new document.

Mr Abe noted that investment by Japanese companies in the Mekong region in the last three years exceeded two trillion yen (S$24.4 billion). "To realise even more private investment than before, Japan will use public funds such as overseas development assistance, as well as overseas investments and loans," he added.

The Mekong leaders in turn reaffirmed the importance of maintaining a rules-based order and freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. This is in line with their support for Japan's FOIPS, which seeks to promote rule of law at sea and build high-quality infrastructure in areas across the Indian and Pacific oceans.

While the leaders did not single out any country by name, their joint statement, in a veiled allusion to China, noted concerns over land reclamation projects and other activities in the area that "have eroded trust and confidence, increased tensions and may undermine peace, security and stability in the region".

Even so, Mr Masatami Kasagi, a Japanese expert on South-east Asian matters, noted that as Japan and China build closer bilateral ties, they are finding ways to complement and collaborate with each other on infrastructure projects .

University of Tokyo political scientist Heng Yee Kuang, who studies soft power issues, also noted that Japan has played a longstanding role in the Mekong region that predates the FOIPS.

"Tokyo can point to its historical record in Mekong connectivity projects," he told The Straits Times, though he noted a key difference that this year's Tokyo Strategy was "quite explicitly" packaged as part of the FOIPS.

He added: "Mekong is one of the key examples of Japan investing quite substantial resources and time, over many years, and not just because of the recent emergence of FOIPS."