Suga to visit Vietnam, Indonesia in first official trip abroad

TOKYO • Japan's new leader will aim to beef up security ties when he visits Vietnam and Indonesia next week amid concerns about Beijing's growing assertiveness, but is likely to steer clear of the harsh anti-China rhetoric used by US counterparts.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, whose resume is scant on diplomatic experience, will follow in predecessor Shinzo Abe's footsteps by making the two South-east Asian nations the destinations for his first overseas trip since taking office last month.

"I think it is important to show... we put more emphasis and importance on that region and we are interested in the security situation, especially in the South China Sea," said former diplomat Kunihiko Miyake, a special adviser to Mr Suga.

Mr Suga is expected to visit Vietnam, chair of the 10-member Asean grouping, and Indonesia, its biggest economy, during a four-day trip from tomorrow.

Japan must balance its deep economic ties with China with security concerns, including Beijing's push to assert claims over disputed East China Sea isles.

Mr Abe oversaw an improvement in ties, but some ruling party MPs want a tougher stance.

Asean members, many of which have territorial feuds with China in vital South China Sea waterways, are wary of alienating a big economic partner and reluctant to become entrapped in an intense confrontation between the United States and China.

Dr Scott Harold, associate director at the Rand Corporation's Centre for Asia-Pacific Policy, said that Japan's approach is to be firm, calm and advance its interests without asking countries to explicitly push back against China.

Japan plans to sign an agreement with Vietnam to allow it to export defence equipment and technology to the country, the Nikkei newspaper reported this week.

A Japanese official said Japan was talking about enhancing defence cooperation with both Hanoi and Jakarta, but could not comment on the outcomes.

Mr Suga's visit also coincides with Japan's efforts to diversify its supply chains and reduce reliance on China by bringing production home or locating more in South-east Asia.

He will likely announce an expansion of Japan's subsidies for production in South-east Asia on his trip, the Nikkei said.


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 17, 2020, with the headline Suga to visit Vietnam, Indonesia in first official trip abroad. Subscribe