Japan announced a new three-year Mekong aid plan Saturday at the Japan-Mekong Summit to promote stability and growth in the region, and counter China’s growing political and economic clout in Southeast Asia.
“Japan will commit about ¥750 billion in official development assistance over the next three years,” Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said at a news conference attended by the leaders of the five countries that make up the area. “Japan is a partner for the development of the Mekong region, which has future potential.”
The five Mekong nations are Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam.
The aid, announced at the annual summit at the Government Guesthouse in Tokyo’s Akasaka district, is part of what Abe said was a new strategy to strengthen ties with the Mekong and achieve “quality growth.”
The New Tokyo Strategy 2015 for Mekong-Japan Cooperation replaces the ¥600 billion aid plan Tokyo announced in 2012. It sets out four pillars to deepen Japanese cooperation with the five countries, which have a combined population of some 240 million in a region that generates a gross domestic product of about $664 billion.
The four pillars are: industrial infrastructure development, industrial human resources, sustainable development, and policy coordination with “various stakeholders.”
Japan hopes to guide the region to quality growth by helping the five nations deal with such issues as disaster risk reduction, climate change and water resource management.
The Mekong leaders praised the new strategy.
“The plan will be the foundation for further boosting the cooperative relations between Mekong countries and Japan,” Laotian Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong said.
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen said he had high expectations for the strategy and that their foreign ministers would try to hammer out an action plan at a meeting next month.
“Sustainable and quality growth in the Mekong region will be realized with the strategy,” he said.
Myanmar President Thein Sein meanwhile called for further efforts to build and nurture human resources.
“At this summit, Myanmar proposed establishing the Mekong University” in the area, the president said. “With the establishment of this university, promotion will be further advanced in fields such as education, culture and society.”
Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha said the Mekong has one of the most dynamic regional economies in the world and emphasized that much room remains for growth in trade, investment and tourism.
“I call on Japanese firms, especially small and medium-sized companies, to expand trade and investment in the region,” Prayuth said.
Abe and his counterparts also discussed regional and international issues, including the situation on the Korean Peninsula, reform of the U.N. Security Council and China’s rapid, large-scale reclamation work in the South China Sea.
The leaders “expressed concerns on recent developments in the South China Sea,” Abe said, in an apparent reference to China.
Beijing claims sovereignty over almost all of the South China Sea, but parts are also claimed by Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia.
“These situations damage mutual trust and threaten the stability and peace in the region,” Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung said, adding that countries should not attempt to change the status quo by force and instead exercise self-restraint to avoid further complicating the situation.
“Disputes should be resolved peacefully and in accordance with international law,” he said.