NAYPYITAW -- Japan is racing to build relationships with new governments in Myanmar and other Southeast Asian countries amid concerns over China's advances, hoping to differentiate itself by offering support more as a partner than as a patron.
Pledging full support
Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida spoke Tuesday with Myanmar counterpart and state adviser Aung San Suu Kyi, the country's de facto leader. Their 45-minute talk marked the first meeting between Suu Kyi and a Japanese cabinet member since the inauguration of the new government.
Kishida made no mention of Tokyo's forgiveness of Myanmar's roughly 500 billion yen ($4.7 billion) in overdue debt or of the substantial official development assistance Japan has furnished. He also did not request Myanmar's cooperation on developing the Dawei special economic zone, a project led by Japan and Thailand.
The Japanese minister instead focused on gaining the trust of the new government, indicating that Tokyo will respect Naypyitaw's wishes. He offered to provide whatever support Myanmar deems necessary and promised support from the public and private sectors.
"Japan wants to continue supporting the new government as a trustworthy partner in development," Kishida said Tuesday in a joint news conference with Suu Kyi.
This strategy was devised with China in mind. "We can't match China on scale or speed," a Japanese government source said. "We need a different approach."
Under former President Thein Sein, Myanmar built closer relationships with the U.S. and Europe, while China's influence was diminished compared with its clout under the old military junta. Beijing "is trying to mount a comeback," a top official in Japan's foreign ministry warned.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi spoke with Suu Kyi in early April, becoming the first foreign cabinet-level official to do so under the new government.
Jockeying for position
The tug of war between Japan and China extends beyond Myanmar. Kishida will continue his tour Wednesday, visiting Laos and Vietnam, which also saw leadership transitions this year.
Bounnhang Vorachit, who has close ties to Vietnam, took over as president of Laos and secretary-general of the ruling Lao People's Revolutionary Party in January. Since Vietnam is butting heads with China over disputed territory in the South China Sea, Japan hopes to use the ascent of Bounnhang as an opportunity to seek closer cooperation with Laos in dealing with Beijing's maritime forays.
Though Laos is ruled by a single party and operates under a collective leadership system, a change at the top can bring subtle policy adjustments, a Japanese government source said.
Kishida plans to discuss cross-border infrastructure projects in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations while in Laos and Vietnam. He will lay out Japan's proposal for support, under which Tokyo will help develop tariff systems and foster talent while respecting partner nations' autonomy.
China's Wang traveled to Brunei, Cambodia and Laos in late April. With Laos slated to host a meeting of ASEAN and related leaders in September, both Tokyo and Beijing hope to shape the discussion. Last year's summit included a messy debate over China's activities in the South China Sea.
Though Kishida met with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and other officials in April to affirm plans to work to mend fences, the South China Sea issue remains a source of friction. Southeast Asia is important to Japan as a market, manufacturing base and shipping route. If Japan remains silent, China will strengthen its sway over the region, spelling trouble for Tokyo, a Japanese foreign ministry official said.