TOKYO -- Japan agreed to deepen cooperation with countries in the Mekong region, as Tokyo aims to maintain its influence in Southeast Asia with more and more countries falling under the sway of China.
Ahead of a Japan-Mekong summit on Tuesday in Tokyo, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe held individual meetings Monday with leaders of Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand.
Japan pledged to provide Laos with an aid package of up to 900 million yen ($8 million) to accelerate the clearing and disposal of landmines. Most of the 80 million explosives buried in Laos during the Vietnam War that ended in 1975 have not been cleared. As such, large swathes of Laos can't be used for farming or to support infrastructure development.
"We highly evaluate Japan's official development assistance," said Laotian Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith. "It is contributing to Lao's economic development."
Tokyo also offered to lend Cambodia up to 3.5 billion yen, on top of loans already extended to the country, to build irrigation facilities in the Lake Tonle Sap area. The two governments are scheduled to sign official documents at a later date. The development of irrigation facilities in the area will boost the productivity of rice farming by threefold.
In recent years, China has been expanding its presence in the Mekong region through its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative. Beijing has been heavily investing in infrastructure projects such as highways, ports and dams, which has deepened its ties with those governments. China's expanding influence has rung an alarm bell among some western countries, Japan and India.
At the meetings, Japan's effort to boost its presence in the region went beyond economic cooperation. Abe touched on Tokyo's "Free and Open Indo-Pacific" strategy, of which many political analysts see as an initiative to counter the growing influence of China in the area of security. China is expanding its military presence and reinforcing claims to disputed islands and maritime territory in the South China Sea.
Some leaders of the Mekong region expressed support for Abe's plan. "We welcome and support efforts and leadership of Japan in the Indo-Pacific Oceans," Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc said at a joint press conference with Abe.
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen said: "[The] Japan-Mekong summit tomorrow will be the first opportunity for the region to welcome Japan's open strategy of [the] Asia-Pacific area."
But what Mekong countries want seems to be cooperation, not confrontation or competition, between Tokyo and Beijing. "I hope Japanese companies will cooperate with Chinese companies in several projects," said Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha at a joint press conference with Abe. "We welcome this kind of cooperation between Japan and China which would give profits to each country [in the Mekong region]."