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Japan seeks closer Southeast Asian ties

TOKYO, Nov 6 – Japan from Friday hosts the leaders of Southeast Asia\’s five Mekong River nations as the world\’s number two economy looks to deepen ties with the resource-rich region amid growing influence from China.

Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, who has pushed the concept of an EU-style Asian Community since taking office in September, will meet his counterparts from Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam for the two-day meeting.

Aside from broad regional issues, the Japanese side also highlighted the significance of Myanmar Prime Minister Thein Sein visiting, saying it would be a good opportunity for dialogue between the two countries.

Much of the region along the lower stretches of the 4,800-kilometre (2,980-mile) Mekong, which starts in the Himalayas, was long isolated by war and turmoil, and remains poorer than other parts of Southeast Asia.

But development has picked up in recent years, with Japan, China and multilateral lenders bringing aid and infrastructure investment, including a web of highways that now criss-cross the region.

"Narrowing the development gap is quite an important agenda point," said a Japanese foreign ministry official.

"Development of the Mekong region will be an important step towards building an East Asian Community."

Besides roads and other infrastructure, Japan is expected to discuss cooperation in programmes to protect the environment, combat climate change and boost human resources development.

The Nikkei business daily said Hatoyama would pledge 200 billion yen (2.2 billion dollars) in low-interest loans — mostly to Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam and primarily for water and waste disposal projects — over three years.

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The summit follows a Mekong foreign ministers\’ meeting in Cambodia in early October and is the first such meeting between Japan and the five nations, according to the foreign ministry here.

The meeting does not include China, although the Mekong flows through the country, where it is called the Lancang.

China has in recent years stepped up aid and investment in the region, from rubber plantations and mines in landlocked Laos, to trade with the military regime in Myanmar, the country formerly called Burma.

The Japanese ministry official, speaking on condition he not be named, denied that Japan was competing with China for greater influence in the lucrative region of about 220 million people.

"We don\’t need to compete with others," the official said, arguing that Tokyo and Beijing have "very good relations" when it comes to coordinating policies on the region\’s development.

But Takashi Inoguchi, dean of the University of Niigata Prefecture, said "the Japanese government thinks it is very important" to foster deeper ties with Southeast Asia in view of China\’s growing presence.

"The phrase \’big market in Asia\’ may bring to mind China or India, but growth is gathering momentum in ASEAN nations," he said, refering to the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

Hatoyama will also have bilateral meetings, including with Thein Sein, who is the first premier from Myanmar to visit Japan since 2003 when his predecessor, Khin Nyunt, attended Japan-ASEAN talks.

The ministry official said the gathering would present "a unique opportunity" for Japan to have high-level talks with Myanmar.

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"We need to continue to encourage the Myanmar government to take positive steps in the process of democratisation," he said.

The US administration has recently changed its tough stance towards Myanmar and adopted a policy of engagement, with senior US envoys visiting this week.

"Their approach is now coming closer to Japan\’s policy direction," which has favoured dialogue, the Japanese official said.

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