In his first overseas visit as prime minister, Shinzo Abe enhanced Japan’s relations with three Southeast Asian countries in an apparent bid to counter China’s growing assertiveness in the region.

During his whirlwind four-day tour of Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia, which was cut short by the hostage crisis in Algeria, Abe underscored the importance of applying the rule of law to resolve territorial arguments involving China and its neighbors in the East and South China seas.

He stressed Tokyo’s opposition to “changing the status quo by force” in his meetings with the three countries’ leaders and demonstrated a sense of unity amid heightened bilateral tensions with Beijing over the Japan-administered Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. The uninhabited islets are also claimed by China, which knows them as Diaoyu, and Taiwan, which calls them Tiaoyutai.

Japan effectively nationalized the disputed islet cluster in mid-September to quash a bid for the isles by Tokyo’s nationalist former governor, Shintaro Ishihara, but has grown increasingly alarmed by China’s incessant intrusions into its territorial waters and airspace in the area since the move.

Elsewhere in the region, Vietnam and the Philippines are involved in bitter sovereignty clashes with China over isles in the South China Sea.

In a speech he was scheduled to give in Jakarta on foreign policy, Abe planned to stress that Japan’s ties in the area must be founded on universal values, such as freedom of speech and keeping sea lanes open in line with maritime and international law.

But Abe, who would also have called for further expansion of cultural and economic ties as well as people-to-people exchanges, had to cancel the speech and rush home to deal with the Japanese hostages in Algeria.

The hawkish Abe, who became prime minister after his Liberal Democratic Party swept last month’s general election, has said he aims to bolster Japan’s security alliance with the United States, which is prioritizing freedom of navigation in the East and South China seas. His stance is clearly intended to prevent Beijing from flexing its increasing muscle in these waters.

Hoping to return the economy to a robust recovery path, Abe also reconfirmed Japan’s strong economic ties with Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia, which are all rapidly expanding economies that require Japanese technologies and investments for various projects to further their growth, including infrastructure development.

Abe said during the tour that Japan and Southeast Asian nations “complement each other economically as partners,” noting that Tokyo can support their development while resuscitating its own economy by deepening ties with “the world’s growth center.”

Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia, all members of the Association of the Southeast Asian Nations, can provide cheap labor to Japanese firms that set up local operations, experts say, while the rise of the middle class in each country will help to create major consumer markets that appeal to foreign investors.

The bid by ASEAN to achieve economic integration by 2015 among its 10 member nations — whose combined population comes to around 600 million — together with a network of free-trade agreements the bloc has established with trading partners including China, India and Australia makes it all the more attractive to do business in Southeast Asia, according to analysts.

Isamu Wakamatsu, director of the Asia and Oceania division of the Japan External Trade Organization’s Overseas Research Department, pointed to the increasing importance of ASEAN to Japanese companies, saying their direct investment in Southeast Asia in recent years has even surpassed their funding for operations in China.

In 2011, Japan’s direct investment in ASEAN countries totaled some ¥1.55 trillion, exceeding the ¥1.01 trillion invested in China. Total trade between Japan and ASEAN amounted to ¥19.8 trillion that year, according to government data.

Tetsuo Masuda, a research fellow of the Tokyo Foundation think tank specializing in Asia-related issues, said Abe’s trip “signifies the resumption of Japan’s diplomacy following a blank period over the past five years.”

“Since the last LDP-led government under Abe (from 2006 to 2007), Japan has changed prime minister almost every year, making it impossible for the country to engage in meaningful diplomatic activities,” Masuda said. “Asian nations that greatly depend on Japan economically count on Tokyo’s influence in the international community so they can strategically deal with major powers like China and the United States.”

Tokyo’s renewed focus on Southeast Asia following the DPJ’s turbulent thee-year period in office coincides with Washington’s Asia-Pacific “pivot” under President Barack Obama, who is expected to continue bolstering the U.S. military and diplomatic presence in the region during his second term, Masuda noted.

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