Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe yesterday departed for a week-long tour of Africa, keeping up a busy travel schedule designed to restore Japan’s global influence in the face of China’s rise.
Abe, who will visit Oman before starting his tour of the Ivory Coast, Mozambique and Ethiopia, is taking a different approach to foreign policy than his immediate predecessors, visiting a wider range of countries to try to broaden Japan’s diplomatic reach.
Publicly, Japanese officials deny that Abe’s travels have anything to do with China.
“Wherever he goes, Prime Minister Abe is asked if he is there to compete against China, but that’s not our intention at all,” Japanese Deputy Chief Secretary of the Cabinet Hiroshige Seko said in an interview yesterday.
Yet the unofficial backdrop is China’s rise and the relative decline of a once ascendant Japan.
A series of revolving-door prime ministers who served brief terms have hurt Japan’s diplomacy and Seko said Abe feels responsible because it started with him during his earlier stint as leader in 2006 and 2007.
Abe touched down in 25 countries last year and told reporters before his departure that Africa can be seen as “a frontier for Japan’s diplomacy.”
Japan is a longtime aid donor to Africa and has stepped up its assistance over the past five years. However, those efforts have been overshadowed by China’s imports of raw materials, massive infrastructure projects and exports of affordable consumer goods, which are widely credited with helping lift African economies in the 21st century.
Abe’s diplomatic push comes as Japan looks to clarify the ownership of 280 remote islands in waters it claims and register them as national assets, a move that could rile Taiwan China and South Korea, which are engaged in territorial disputes with Tokyo.
Japan’s move to survey the islands was announced this week and continues a plan first begun five years ago, an official at the Japanese Oceanic Policy and Territorial Issues secretariat said.
He said the location of the islands were unclear until the survey was completed, but they were all within Japanese territorial waters and the boundaries of the country’s exclusive economic zone would not change.
Since the plan was initiated, Japan has nationalized about 99 islands with no apparent owner.
China is keeping a close watch on the situation, Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Hua Chunying (華春瑩) said.
“We believe that Japan’s actions in marine areas should follow international law and should not harm the interests of other countries, or the international community,” Hua told a regular news briefing yesterday.