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International relations

Japan's top diplomat kicks off tour of Central America and Cuba

Tokyo to push back against Beijing with infrastructure and vaccine aid

Cuban and Japanese flags fly on top of the plane bringing Japan's then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to Havana in 2016.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi departed Thursday for a visit to four countries in Central America and the Caribbean to help the U.S. counteract Chinese influence in Washington's backyard.

Motegi is set to arrive in Guatemala, then visit Panama and Cuba before wrapping up his trip in Jamaica. While in Guatemala, he will join a virtual meeting Friday local time with counterparts from the eight-member Central American Integration System. On Tuesday local time, he will participate in a meeting of foreign ministers from the Caribbean Community.

The trip continues years of diplomatic outreach by Japan -- despite its geographical distance from the region -- that has gained greater urgency as China makes inroads through expanding infrastructure and trade, and more recently through vaccine diplomacy.

Motegi plans to explain the "free and open Indo-Pacific" concept advocated by Japan and ask for cooperation in maintaining an international order based on the rule of law. He will also offer Japanese support for building high-quality infrastructure and help with training talent.

The head diplomat will share Japanese disaster mitigation know-how with a part of the world often hit by hurricanes and volcanoes, as well as announce expanded support for transportation networks to carry coronavirus vaccines.

Shinzo Abe in 2014 became the first sitting Japanese prime minister to visit Trinidad and Tobago, making a similar trip to Jamaica the following year.

Latin America has long been a security keystone for the U.S. and an area where it has been unwilling to tolerate outside influence -- to the point of quashing anti-American regimes in the decades after World War II. It imposed an embargo against Cuba in response to the Cuban Revolution of the late 1950s, a policy that has remained in place in some form to this day.

Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi will continue with Japan's outreach to a region where China has been expanding its influence. (Photo by Masaya Kato)

Under previous President Donald Trump, the U.S. did not work toward a friendlier relationship with Havana, owing to factors including illegal immigration. China moved to seize on this opening, spending heavily on infrastructure there to counter Washington's distance advantage.

Latin American countries have begun tilting toward China in recent years as Beijing has poured money into the region, partly to further its pressure campaign against Taiwan.

Nine of the 15 countries that maintain diplomatic relations with Taipei are in Latin America and the Caribbean. Panama cut formal ties with Taiwan in favor of China in 2017, followed by the Dominican Republic and El Salvador in 2018.

The shift has worried U.S. President Joe Biden's administration, which picked Guatemala as the destination for Vice President Kamala Harris' first foreign trip in office last month. Japan looks to build trust with countries in the region to indirectly shore up Washington.

This could be considered a way of further strengthening the alliance. Japan relies on America's military might for its own security and would not be able to respond to a conflict around Taiwan or the Senkaku Islands without U.S. support.

"Central American and Caribbean countries have suffered a heavy economic blow from the coronavirus," said Kanako Yamaoka, a researcher with the Institute of Developing Economies at the Japan External Trade Organization. "There's a lot of poverty in Central America, and [countries] can tilt toward China if it offers support. This visit [by Motegi] would make an impact on that trend."

Vaccines have become part of the tug of war for regional influence.

The Dominican Republic, which has received doses from China, has administered at least one shot to 48.6% of its population, according to Our World in Data. El Salvador, another recipient of Chinese support, has a 32.7% vaccination rate. Guatemala, which still has diplomatic relations with Taiwan, has vaccinated just 4.9%.

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