Wednesday, 16 January 2008

Japan seeks to boost ties with Mekong nations

TOKYO (AFP) - - Foreign ministers from countries on the Mekong River gathered Wednesday for their first joint talks with Japan as it seeks to counter China's increasing influence in the region.

The one-day meeting includes Myanmar, which has faced heavy international criticism since its deadly crackdown on pro-democracy protests in September.

Japan is expected to offer the Mekong countries -- Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam -- a new aid package to improve infrastructure including highways.

Tokyo, which has had uneasy ties with China and South Korea dating back to World War II, has long treated Southeast Asia as a key region of influence by lavishing development aid and trade deals.

But more recently "the presence of China -- and also South Korea -- in this region is very big," a Japanese official who handles Southeast Asian matters said.

"China has borders with all these countries except for Cambodia, and excluding Thailand, the trade volumes with China are bigger than the trade volumes with Japan for these countries," he said on condition of anonymity.

The ministers will hold individual meetings with Japanese Foreign Minister Masahiko Komura and pay a courtesy call on Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda.

"Cooperative relations between Japan and Vietnam have recently advanced rapidly. I hope the bilateral relationship contributes to cooperation in the whole Mekong region," Komura told his Vietnamese counterpart Pham Gia Khiem at the start of their talks.

Complicating the meeting is the issue of Myanmar, which counts on China as its main ally.
Japan has refused Western calls to end aid to military-ruled Myanmar, and this week pledged 1.79 million dollars to improve public health there.

In October, Japan cancelled nearly five million dollars in aid in protest at the military's bloody crackdown on rallies, in which a Japanese journalist was killed.

The foreign ministry official said Komura is expected to call for democracy in Myanmar during his meetings.

Scot Marciel, the US deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asia, called Tuesday on a visit to Tokyo for all nations, including Japan and China, to send a united message to Myanmar's junta leaders that they are heading in the "wrong direction."

Human Rights Watch also wrote to Komura urging Japan to address human rights concerns in Southeast Asian countries, saying Tokyo's concerns should extend beyond Myanmar.

"In many Mekong countries, human rights abuses are rampant," Brad Adams, executive director of the rights group's Asia division, said in his letter.

"Governments chronically restrict freedom of expression, widely discriminate against ethnic minorities, pillage natural resources at the expense of local populations and provide impunity for those responsible for abuses," he said.

"Given your government�s relationship with each of the Mekong countries, and as a leading democratic power, we believe Japan can and should bring about significant improvements by speaking out clearly and publicly on human rights abuses," Adams said.

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