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Politics

Abe seeks ASEAN's aid to check Chinese expansion

But Southeast Asian bloc hesitant to get on Beijing's bad side

MANILA -- Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe faces a delicate balancing act at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit that kicked off here Monday as he tries to enlist Southeast Asian countries in his Indo-Pacific strategy despite their concerns over angering China.

Abe expressed a hope of leading the world together with ASEAN, which faces both the Indian and Pacific oceans.

He had met with U.S. President Donald Trump and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in advance. Abe also met separately with Turnbull, explaining his Indo-Pacific strategy. Senior diplomats from Japan, the U.S., Australia and India also discussed Abe's strategy at a meeting in Manila.

Abe first announced his Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy back in August 2016. The idea espouses cooperation on maritime security and economic issues among coastal countries that value such concepts as the rule of law and the market economy. The prime minister aims to establish a new order in the region in partnership with not only the U.S., but also Australia and India.

He hopes that this strategy will restrain Beijing's militarization moves in the South China Sea and involvement in port development projects in South Asia. Washington's limited presence in the Indian Ocean makes Australian and Indian cooperation crucial to discouraging unilateral Chinese action there.

Japan is also concerned by ASEAN's growing dependence on the massive Chinese market. It is considering helping these countries find a foothold in such other large markets as India, Africa and Australia.

The working-level agreement recently reached by the 11 remaining members of the Trans-Pacific Partnership gives such efforts a tailwind. With four ASEAN members taking part, the TPP is a complementary framework to Abe's Indo-Pacific strategy. He aims to continue pushing for free trade in the region to apply further pressure on China.

But Japan and ASEAN are not entirely on the same page in goals. ASEAN would be hard-pressed to rapidly reduce its economic dependence on China, resulting in a divergence of attitudes on Beijing in the bloc itself.

Given the reservations within ASEAN, Abe has dialed back his rhetoric on containing Chinese interests. He is instead trying to woo the bloc by framing his Indo-Pacific strategy as complementary to Beijing's Belt and Road Initiative.

Abe also avoided discussing his strategy with Chinese President Xi Jinping at their summit Saturday. They agreed to contribute to the region's prosperity and stability, including through Belt and Road.

Still, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told reporters Monday that economic cooperation should not come through exclusionary frameworks, expressing concerns that Abe's Indo-Pacific strategy could end up isolating China.

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