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International relations

Abe goes on tour to pitch 'free and open' Indo-Pacific

Japanese prime minister will meet with Russia's Putin on the sidelines

An Indonesia Navy officer watches a Japanese Maritime Self-Defense vessel enter port in September 2018. Japan wants countries to work together on maritime security as part of its push for a "Free and Open Indo-Pacific."   © Reuters

TOKYO -- Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe seeks to spread his vision for a "free and open Indo-Pacific" as he tours the region starting Wednesday, urging cooperation among like-minded countries to enhance maritime security and promote free trade.

His goal, which is shared with the U.S., is to create a framework for countries on the Indian and Pacific oceans to advance common ideals like the rule of law and the market economy, mostly through cooperation on maritime security.

As Abe visits Singapore and Papua New Guinea and Australia, he will also hold bilateral talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin and will explore a chance for a brief talk with South Korean President Moon Jae-in.

"The prime minister will seek collaboration on regional issues like North Korea and turning the vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific into reality, and send a strong message to the international community," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters Tuesday.

Abe's first stop will be Singapore, to attend the East Asia Summit with members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, as well as the U.S., China and South Korea. He will call on attendees to abide by U.N. sanctions against North Korea to push Pyongyang to denuclearize, and will express his concern over Beijing's militarization in the South China Sea.

The prime minister will then attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Papua New Guinea, where he will push the creation of a free-trade framework in the region. He is also stressing the importance of transparent and financially sound infrastructure investment, hoping to create new guidelines to prevent countries from being drawn into debt traps by China's Belt and Road infrastructure initiative.

In between the two conferences, Abe will travel to northern Australia on Friday for his first summit with Prime Minister Scott Morrison since the latter took office in August. The two leaders will affirm their commitment to the "free and open" Indo-Pacific goal. He will also attend a ceremony for the Ichthys liquefied natural gas project there led by Japanese oil developer Inpex, which will start operations soon.

In the meeting with Putin on Wednesday, Abe hopes to score progress on the territorial dispute. In September, Putin suggested that the countries sign a peace treaty without preconditions. Abe, who believes they must first resolve the dispute over a set of islets known as the Northern Territories in Japan and the Southern Kurils in Russia, nonetheless welcomed Putin's desire for a peace treaty. 

Abe is not scheduled for a one-on-one sitdown with Moon. But the two leaders could have an informal chat on recent tensions over workers forced to work for Japanese companies during World War II.

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