Japanese PM arrives for LatAm tour eying energy deals

MEXICO CITY (AFP) - Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe launched a five-country Latin American tour in Mexico on Friday, keen to strike energy deals on the heels of the Chinese president's visit to the resource-rich region.

Mr Abe will also travel to Trinidad and Tobago, Colombia, Chile and Brazil in a nine-day visit that comes two days after China'sXi Jinping wrapped up his own four-country tour, underlining Asia's growing interest in the region's fast-growing economies and vast natural resources.

With Japan on the lookout for new power sources after the Fukushima disaster forced the shutdown of its nuclear reactors, energy will be high on the prime minister's agenda.

Japan's top-selling newspaper, Yomiuri Shimbun, reported on Friday that Tokyo plans to provide financial and technical support to help Mexico develop its nascent shale gas sector, aiming to start importing Mexican gas in the mid-2020s.

And the newspaper Sankei meanwhile reported that Mizuho, one of Japan's biggest banks, would sign a deal for about US$500 million (S$620 million) in loans to Brazil's state-run oil firm Petrobras to help fund oil exploration off the country's coast.

Traveling with a delegation of Japanese executives and his wife Akie, Mr Abe received a red-carpet welcome at the Mexico City airport's presidential hangar from Mexican Foreign Minister Jose Antonio Meade.

He was due to hold talks with President Enrique Pena Nieto - their fifth meeting since the Mexican leader took office in December 2012 - then chair a bilateral economic forum.

The two presidents will also tour the pyramids at the pre-Columbian city of Teotihuacan, a visit Mr Abe requested because of his "great interest in the richness of Mexican culture and its traditions," the Mexican foreign ministry said in a statement.

Announcing Mr Abe's trip earlier this month, government spokesman Yoshihide Suga said Latin American countries "are increasingly important for the Japanese economy because of their growing economies and natural resources."

Japan, long one of the world's top exporting countries, has registered two consecutive years of trade deficits since the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami triggered the Fukushima disaster.

With its emerging economies, Latin America holds promise as a relatively untapped market for Japanese exports, in addition to its coveted raw materials.

But Japan is not the only one showing growing interest in the region often considered the United States' back yard.

The back-to-back Chinese and Japanese visits come at a moment when territorial disputes between the Asian rivals have pushed their relations to a low point.

China's Xi headed home from his own trip to Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela and Cuba with dozens of deals in areas from oil to mining to agriculture.

Russian President Vladimir Putin also recently wrapped up a tour of the region, visiting Cuba, Nicaragua, Argentina and Brazil.

Mr Xi and Mr Putin, who overlapped in Brazil, played to Latin American resentment toward perceived dominance of the region by Japan's longtime ally the United States.

Together with Brazil, India and South Africa - their partners in the BRICS group of emerging powers - they announced the creation of a new US$50-billion development bank and US$100-billion reserve fund to rival the Western-dominated World Bank and International Monetary Fund.

Mr Xi also wooed regional leaders by proposing a new US$20-billion infrastructure fund for the region.