TOKYO -- As China ramps up overtures to bring Europe into its Belt and Road infrastructure initiative, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe seeks stronger ties with Central and Eastern European nations to offer the region an alternative path to economic recovery.
Abe's visit to Slovakia this month will mark the first by a Japanese prime minister. He plans to speak further with leaders from the Visegrad Four -- the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia -- following up on a meeting on the sidelines of an international conference in Brussels in October.
Beijing regards Eastern Europe as an important region for its ambitions on the continent. China has been investing heavily in the Balkan nations outside the European Union -- a group that consists of Albania and many of the countries that made up Yugoslavia.
China announced $9.4 billion in deals for 16 Central and Eastern European countries in 2016 and 2017, of which $4.9 billion was pledged to the western Balkans to build roads, power plants and more, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Beijing is now focusing on the Visegrad Four nations and Italy as a foothold into the EU. Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Italy in March, winning the first endorsement for the Belt and Road Initiative from a Group of Seven country. Premier Li Keqiang attended a summit with 16 Central and Eastern European leaders in Croatia last week.
The Visegrad Four see Chinese investment as a path to its recovery from the European debt crisis. All four have signed a memorandum of understanding on Belt and Road, and Hungary has already received Chinese loans to build railroads. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban is expected to skip the upcoming meeting with Abe to attend a Belt and Road summit in Beijing.
No major projects have begun in the Czech Republic, Poland or Slovakia. Abe plans to urge them to deepen economic ties with Japan in the meantime, and he likely will agree to send a Japanese business delegation to Slovakia as early as this fall.
Given the region's many automobile companies, Japan will encourage its businesses in the industry to make inroads there. About 300 Japanese companies now operate in Poland, and about 250 in the Czech Republic.
Abe will raise concerns about the so-called debt trap associated with Belt and Road as well. Some western Balkan countries already face mounting debts.
The Japanese leader also visits France, Italy, Belgium, the U.S. and Canada as part of the eight-day trip starting Monday. In Italy, he will outline Japan's focus on sustainable economic development to Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and push for greater bilateral cooperation.
But Japan is not trying to antagonize China. Tokyo has pledged support for Belt and Road projects in third countries, and has focused on improving ties with Beijing.
"Japan can't give the kind of massive funding China can," said Shin Kawashima, a University of Tokyo professor specializing in Asia's political and diplomatic history. "It is important for Japan to understand the diverse needs among Eastern European countries, and show it is willing to stand by them through financial advice and other means."