Japan's Abe eyes SE Asia, not US, for first official foreign trip

TOKYO (AFP) - Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is set to make Southeast Asia his first foreign destination, reports said on Tuesday, despite an earlier pledge to go to Washington before anywhere else.

The second-time premier is expected to visit Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam later this month, after "scheduling difficulties" put the brakes on a trip to the United States, the major dailies Asahi and Yomiuri reported, without citing sources.

Abe said on Monday that although he wanted to visit the US first to strengthen Tokyo's alliance with Washington, "I've broadened the scope of my schedule, partly because of the circumstances (on the US side)." His visit to Washington is now being arranged for some time in February, the reports said.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga declined to comment on the reports, insisting nothing had been decided.

"We want to think about our plans once Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Chikao Kawai returns home and reports the outcome of his meetings in the US," he told reporters.

Abe has stressed the importance of closer ties with Washington at a time of heightened tensions with Beijing over a territorial row.

He went to China for his first foreign visit during his 2006-2007 tenure as prime minister, but said in the run-up to his landslide poll win that he would go to Washington ahead of any visit to a neighbouring country.

US President Barack Obama remains a popular figure in Japan.

The visit to Washington shortly after his 2008 inauguration by then-prime minister Taro Aso was seen as an indication of Tokyo's importance to its ally.

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