Originally Published 2015-07-16 00:00:00 Published on Jul 16, 2015
At the recent seventh Japan-Mekong Summit in Tokyo in the first week of July, both Japan and the Mekong countries reiterated their resolve to implement an ambitious cooperation programme called New Tokyo Strategy 2015 for Mekong-Japan Cooperation for the three years covering 2016-18.
Japan's expanding Mekong diplomacy

Successive Japanese governments since 1952 have stated that political stability and economic prosperity of Southeast Asia are closely bound up with Japan's national interests. As a major component of Tokyo's foreign policy, Southeast Asia is one region where Japan's diplomacy has achieved considerable success in coming to terms with the challenges posed by the legacies of the Second World War. Japan and ASEAN have not only put the bitter war legacies behind, but have gone a long way to build close economic and strategic partnership.

Within the ASEAN region, Japan has been pursuing a well-calibrated strategy to cultivate the five Mekong region countries -- Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Myanmar. With the exception of Thailand, the other four countries, though rich in natural resources, are economically very poor and need massive external economic assistance to achieve progress. The region with a population of 240 million and a total GDP of $665 billion, is of immense strategic importance to Japan. It is located at the intersection of three massive markets -- China, India and other ASEAN countries.

Japan's profile in the Indochina peninsula has been steadily rising, particularly since its participation in the UN Transitional Administration in Cambodia (UNTAC), 1991-93, which also paved the way for Tokyo's deepening interest in the economic reconstruction of Cambodia. In 1992, it convened an international conference for Cambodia's economic reconstruction and mobilised a total assistance of $880 million with its own contribution of $200 million.

The end of the cold war also saw the regional dynamics undergoing major changes following the rise of China as a dominant player. Japan has always believed in the stability and balanced growth of the ASEAN region. In this context, Japan realises that rapid economic development of the Mekong countries is all the more essential because the idea of the ASEAN Community is expected to materialise this year. The glaring economic disparities between the Mekong region and other ASEAN countries should be narrowed as much as possible by that time. As a country that has worked hard for the integration of ASEAN, Japan has formulated a strategy since 2009 to narrow the economic gap between the two groups.

Japan has created institutional mechanisms to carry forward its Mekong agenda. Under this, Japan and the five countries have been convening their summit meetings annually since 2009 to review the progress of their economic cooperation. They have also drawn up three major strategies each covering a period of three years. The first three-year strategy was designed in 2009 covering 2010-12 and the second one was prepared in 2012 covering the years 2013-15. In the second phase Japan extended Y 600 billion from its ODA funds.

At the recent seventh Japan-Mekong Summit which met in Tokyo in the first week of July, both Japan and the Mekong countries reiterated their resolve to implement an ambitious cooperation programme called New Tokyo Strategy 2015 for Mekong-Japan Cooperation for the three years covering 2016-18. Japan has agreed to commit a sum of Y 750 billion ($ 6.1 billion) from its Official Development Assistance (ODA) to the region. In the joint statement issued by the two parties on 4 July, they announced that they would implement a cooperation programme with the objective of promoting regional stability and ensuring quality growth in the Mekong region. In order to ensure quality growth, both sides believed, it is necessary to recognise the vast demand for infrastructure, to promote connectivity within the region and surrounding regions, to improve investment climate, to mobilise human resources and to ensure sustainable and environment friendly development. Japan will extend its assistance to develop high quality infrastructure in many areas including energy, urban development, transport, water supply, agriculture and telecommunication. Quality infrastructure, according to Japan, means promoting effective resource mobilisation, ensuring congruence with economic and development strategies of the region, assessing the potential social, and environmental impacts, and taking into due consideration factors like life-style cost, safety and resilience to disasters. Both sides also show great receptivity to the need for collaborating with international organisations like the Asian Development Bank, as well as the private sector partners.

On the sidelines of the Summit, Japan, Thailand and Myanmar signed a memorandum of cooperation for mutually developing the Dawei Special Economic Zone in Myanmar. Dawei is regarded as an economic gateway linking the Indian and the Pacific Oceans. The project will start with building a 138 km road from Dawei to Kanchanaburi province northwest of Bangkok. Japan is also developing a maritime connectivity between Dawei and Chennai port in South India.

At the Summit, Japan and the five Mekong countries also addressed several regional issues relevant to peace and stability such as nuclear disarmament, maritime security and energy cooperation. In particular, they stressed the need for maintaining the freedom of navigation and overflights and expressed their concerns regarding recent developments in the South China Sea.

Finally, is Japan's Mekong diplomacy directed against China's influence in the region? Considering China's increasing economic and strategic interests, Prime Minister Abe is redefining Japan's security and economic role in the ASEAN region. Nevertheless Japan is also cautious not to openly confront China. As a confidence building measure, Japan has institutionalised a bilateral mechanism called Japan-China Policy Dialogue on the Mekong Region that provides a platform for the two countries to exchange views on many aspects of development. Five meetings of the Dialogue have taken place and the next one will be held in Japan in 2016.

Though a late-comer, China has also been vigorously wooing the Mekong countries by means of economic assistance to projects like constructing the North-South corridor and undertaking railway projects. China's overall trade with Mekong countries is more than Japan's and its investment has also grown big. Mekong countries find themselves placed in a favourable situation that should enable them to take advantage of both Japan and China.

(Prof K.V.Kesavan is a Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi)

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K. V. Kesavan

K. V. Kesavan

K.V. Kesavan (1938 2021) was Visiting Distinguished Fellow at ORF. He was one of the leading Indian scholars in the field of Japanese studies. Professor ...

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