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Abe pledges fresh security-related aid to Vietnam

Kyodo, Reuters, Bloomberg

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Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Monday that Japan will provide six patrol vessels to Vietnam as a part of a fresh yen loan offer totaling ¥120 billion to the Southeast Asian country to help its maritime safety efforts amid China’s expanding activities at sea.

The patrol vessels are aimed at enhancing bilateral cooperation, Abe said at a news conference following talks with his Vietnamese counterpart, Nguyen Xuan Phuc, in Hanoi, held at a time when uncertainty is looming over incoming U.S. President Donald Trump’s commitment to the stability of the Asia-Pacific region.

Vietnam is embroiled in a territorial row with China in the contested South China Sea, along with four other governments.

Although Japan is not a claimant in the South China Sea disputes, it remains concerned about China’s growing military presence in the busy shipping lane and is keen to maintain a rules-based order at sea.

Tokyo meanwhile is involved in a dispute with Beijing over the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea that are claimed by China.

Vietnam is Abe’s last stop on a four-nation tour that also took him to the Philippines, Australia and Indonesia, which — along with Vietnam — have been key Asia-Pacific nations that Abe has sought to strengthen ties with amid China’s rise and uncertainties over Trump’s Asia policies.

Amid concerns about a shift to a protectionist U.S. trade policy under Trump, the leaders are likely to have discussed promoting free trade, including the U.S.-led Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, of which both countries are members, Japanese officials said.

RCEP is an Asia-Pacific mega-pact that — unlike the TPP — excludes the United States but includes China.

The outlook for the TPP is dim as Trump, who takes office Friday, has vowed to reject the agreement in its current form.

Nguyen Xuan Phuc is holding out hope that Trump will reconsider the TPP, noting that recent comments by officials who are set to take senior roles in Trump’s Cabinet give him reason to be optimistic.

“Many of the newly appointed members of the new Cabinet are in favor of the TPP, so I think that Washington might reconsider its decision because it will also benefit the U.S.,” he said.

Phuc, 62, is working with other Asia-Pacific leaders to keep momentum going on the 12-nation trade treaty.

Vietnam, however, has yet to submit a proposal to ratify the TPP in its National Assembly.

In addition to strengthening security dialogue and defense cooperation, Abe was set to offer Japanese cooperation on infrastructure development in Vietnam, including a sewage system project and the development of the Hoa Lac high-tech park on the outskirts of Hanoi, the officials said.

Vietnam’s decision last year to withdraw contracts to build nuclear power reactors with Japanese assistance was a blow to the Abe government, which views the export of infrastructure as a pillar of his economic growth strategy.

On Sunday, Abe met Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, with the two agreeing to start discussions on a major railway project linking Jakarta and the nation’s second-biggest city.

Japan has historically been one of Indonesia’s biggest investors but was dealt a blow in 2015 when Jokowi’s government awarded China a high-speed train project that links Jakarta with the city of Bandung in West Java.

Tensions surrounding the railway deals appeared to have eased Sunday, when Abe said after meeting Jokowi in Bogor, south of Jakarta, that Japan will cooperate with Indonesia to build infrastructure in the railway and other sectors.

Abe also announced that Tokyo will provide Indonesia with yen loans worth ¥73.9 billion for irrigation and coastal protection projects.

In response, Jokowi said the two leaders had agreed to hold a “two-plus-two” meeting of their defense and foreign ministers in Jakarta by the end of the year.

The two leaders also discussed North Korea, with Abe saying its development of nuclear capability and missiles has reached “a new level of threat.”

North Korea said last week it can test launch an intercontinental ballistic missile at any time from any location set by leader Kim Jong Un, adding that the hostile U.S. policy was to blame for its arms development.

On the South China Sea, Abe stressed that Japan places a high level of importance on upholding the law and solving disputes peacefully.

“The issue of the South China Sea has drawn the attention of the international community and directly affects the peace in the region,” Abe said.

Maritime security cooperation is of the utmost importance for fellow maritime nations Japan and Indonesia, he added.

“Japan will actively encourage cooperation in maritime security and the development of the remote islands in Indonesia,” he said.

China claims almost the entire South China Sea, through which about $5 trillion worth of trade passes each year. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also have claims to parts of the sea.

While Indonesia is not part of the dispute over claims in the South China Sea, it objects to China’s claim to waters around the Natuna Islands.

At an estimated cost of $5.5 billion, the Jakarta-Bandung rail line was seen in 2015 as a coup for China, which is vying for influence in the region under its “One Belt, One Road” policy and has ambitions to be a global train supplier.

The roughly 600-km Jakarta-Surabaya project is likely to cost less than the Jakarta-Bandung rail as the speed of the trains is slower and most of the land has been secured, according to Indonesia’s transport minister.

The transport minister said in October that his government had invited Japan to work on the Jakarta-Surabaya project, which is aimed at slashing journey times between the capital and the East Java city by more than half, to around five hours.

Japan and Indonesia also plan to develop the Masela gas block in Indonesia’s Maluku Province and Patimban port in West Java, Jokowi said Sunday.

On other regional issues, Abe said North Korea’s kidnapping of Japanese citizens is a very important challenge for his administration.

Pyongyang admitted in 2002 to kidnapping 13 Japanese citizens decades ago. Abe has made resolving the emotive issue a signature pledge of his political career.