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International relations

Suga to take up Abe's Indo-Pacific mantle with ASEAN tour

Japan's new leader plans first overseas trip to Vietnam and Indonesia

Suga plans to visit Vietnam and Indonesia in mid-October in his first overseas trip since taking office. (Source photos by Reuters and Nikkei)

TOKYO -- Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga is considering visits to Vietnam and Indonesia in mid-October, Nikkei has learned, in a bid to demonstrate his commitment to predecessor Shinzo Abe's push for a "free and open Indo-Pacific."

It will be Suga's first overseas visits since taking office. The two countries are first on Suga's travel itinerary, which is being planned now that the coronavirus outbreak has somewhat eased in the region compared with the U.S. and Europe. The plans are still subject to change depending on the status of the contagion.

Vietnam and Indonesia were also the first countries Abe visited when he began his second stint as prime minister in 2012. They play a central role within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and their cooperation will be crucial amid China's maritime incursions in the South China Sea.

"I will pursue diplomatic policies based on a functional Japan-U.S. alliance," Suga said in his inaugural news conference on Sept. 16.

To counter Beijing's expansionism in the East and South China seas, Japan and the U.S. have been pushing for a free and open Indo-Pacific, promoting democratic values in the region through greater economic and security cooperation. ASEAN is an important part of this initiative, considering the 10 member countries are located on a major sea lane that connects the Middle East and East Asia.

Indonesia was the main driver for ASEAN's outlook on the Indo-Pacific issued in June 2019, in which the bloc vowed to play a "central and strategic role" in the region. Meanwhile, Vietnam chairs ASEAN this year, and has faced pressure from China in the South China Sea.

"Suga is likely trying to strike a balance by choosing to go to Vietnam, which faces tensions with China, and Indonesia, which places a heavy importance on China ties," said Keio University professor Yuichi Hosoya.

Suga is slated to speak with Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc and Indonesian President Joko Widodo.

The Japanese prime minister seeks to coordinate efforts with Vietnam and Indonesia regarding the South China Sea, as U.S.-China military and economic tensions continue to heat up. ASEAN members are wary the dispute could escalate local conflicts. 

Japan will likely try to appeal to ASEAN partners about securing regional stability in a bid to curb China's growing regional ambitions.

In addition to China, the leaders are expected to discuss a plan for lifting travel restrictions imposed over the coronavirus pandemic.

Resuming international travel with countries that have the outbreak under control will be a boon to the Japanese economy. Japan is already in talks with Vietnam, whose new daily cases are in the single digits, according to Johns Hopkins University, about easing restrictions on business travel between the countries, both of which have already reopened borders to expatriates.

Indonesia is still logging about 4,000 new cases a day. But it is the most populated country in ASEAN and has significant economic potential. "Many Japanese corporations have set up shop in Indonesia, first largely in the auto industry but now also in retail, wholesale and infrastructure," said Kunihiko Shinoda, professor at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies.

Vietnam and Indonesia are also players in the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership trade pact between ASEAN, Japan, China and others, which its members hope to sign by the end of the year.

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