• Kyodo

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Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga is arranging to participate in a major security forum to be held in Singapore next month, government sources said Tuesday, as Japan cooperates with like-minded countries to counter China's growing military influence in the region.

Suga, who would be the first Japanese leader in seven years to attend the Shangri-La Dialogue, is slated to give a keynote speech, the sources said.

During the June 4-5 gathering, sponsored by British think tank the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Suga is expected to call for a free and open Indo-Pacific region, a vision promoted by Japan and the United States as China increases its maritime assertiveness in the East and South China seas.

The annual conference, which has been held in Singapore since 2002, was canceled last year after the COVID-19 pandemic forced many countries to restrict travel and shut their borders.

The last time a Japanese prime minister attended the event was in 2014 when Suga's predecessor, Shinzo Abe, called for a rules-based order in the Asia-Pacific region.

The event has been providing a platform for ministers and top military officials from more than 40 countries, including the United States and China, to discuss major security challenges in the region.

Suga plans to make the visit ahead of the summit of the Group of Seven major nations to be held June 11 to 13 in Cornwall, southwestern England, as he tries to gradually resume in-person diplomacy, which has been stalled by the pandemic.

But he could still opt not to go if he decides to extend again the ongoing COVID-19 state of emergency beyond its end date, currently set for May 31, according to the sources.

The current state of emergency, which was declared in late April as Japan struggled with a fourth wave of infections, was originally scheduled to end Tuesday but was extended amid surging infections driven by the spread of variants of the virus, putting increased strain on the country's medical system.

Suga's plan to visit Singapore comes after he and U.S. President Joe Biden affirmed last month in their meeting in Washington the importance of "peace and stability" across the Taiwan Strait.

The first reference to Taiwan since 1969 in a joint statement of Japanese and U.S. leaders came amid Beijing's growing military pressure on Taipei.

China has also been stepping up activities in Japanese territorial waters around the Senkaku Islands, a group of uninhabited islands that Beijing claims and which it calls Diaoyu.

Japan has turned to a grouping with the United States, Australia and India, the so-called Quad, to promote fundamental principles such as the freedom of navigation in the region and the rule of law.

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