By Ko Hirano
Tokyo, 19 Feb—The leaders of Japan and five Southeast Asian countries along the Mekong River plan to craft a new strategy in July for Tokyo to contribute to sustainable development of the Mekong region beyond 2015, a senior Japanese official said Thursday.
“The leaders of Japan and the Mekong states will assemble to draw up a new strategy that would succeed the ‘Tokyo Strategy 2012 for Mekong-Japan Cooperation’ for further development of Japan and the Mekong region as they are about to enter a new stage of cooperation,” Minoru Kiuchi, senior vice foreign minister, told a forum in Tokyo.
Kiuchi was referring to the strategy the leaders are expected to adopt during a Japan-Mekong summit slated for July 4 in Tokyo ahead of the planned launch of a more integrated ASEAN Economic Community at the end of the year.
Thursday’s event, the fifth session of the Forum for the Promotion of Public-Private Cooperation in the Mekong Region, brought together government officials, businesspeople and experts from Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam and Japan.
Of 600 billion yen, or $5 billion, in assistance that Japan pledged in the 2012 strategy, more than 500 billion yen has been implemented for infrastructure and other development projects.
“Our country will continue to pursue the building of infrastructure of high quality for sustainable growth of the Mekong region,” Kiuchi said, vowing to “develop together” with the region based on a “win-win” relationship.
Japan’s drive to create the new development strategy comes as China has increased its clout in the region through its economic might.
The five Mekong states form the Association of Southeast Asian Nations with Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Singapore.
A Thai delegate said ASEAN hopes the strategy will include work plans for lower development gaps among Mekong states, a prerequisite for greater ASEAN integration, and for a more environment-friendly and higher quality of life.
Chutintorn Gongsakdi, director general of the International Economic Affairs Department at the Thai Foreign Ministry, also voiced expectations of Japanese support in a joint Thai-Myanmar project to develop the Dawei Special Economic Zone in southern Myanmar on the Indian Ocean coast.
“Southeast Asia is a backyard of Japan. We are not strangers to each other,” Chutintorn told Kyodo News. “So it’s only logical that Japan plays an active role in projects like Dawei, but also others, in making a single production base in ASEAN, especially in the Mekong Subregion.”
“In Thailand, we call the Mekong Subregion the ‘Golden Land’ because of the opportunities that are there,” he said.
As if to underline Chutintorn’s remarks, Yoichi Kobayashi, chairman of the Japan-Mekong Business Cooperation Committee at the Japan Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said that many Japanese companies, especially small and midsize ones, have “strong interest” in doing business in Mekong states.
Citing the doubling to tripling of the number of Japanese companies operating in Cambodia and Laos over the last few years, Kobayashi said economic ties have been growing steadily between Japan and so-called “Plus-One” locations to avert the risks of excessively concentrating Japanese business operations in neighboring Thailand.
In January, Japan signed bilateral aviation agreements with Cambodia and Laos to allow airlines to operate regular direct flights between Japan and the two countries, a move that equips Tokyo with such accords with all ASEAN member states.
“I believe such moves involving ‘Plus-One’ countries will contribute to economic development not only in Cambodia and Laos, but Japan and the whole Mekong region” through enhanced intra-region connectivity, said Kobayashi, executive vice president of Itochu Corp., a major trading house.
The Japan Chamber of Commerce and Industry will send a mission to Myanmar in late February to explore business cooperation involving small and midsize companies from the two countries. The chamber also plans to send a mission to Thailand in the near future.
Sar Kheng, deputy prime minister and interior minister of Cambodia, called for greater Japanese investment in his country, saying, “Cambodia is open for business.”
“Taking this opportunity from this forum, may I invite and encourage more investments from Japan mainly in the transport, electricity, information technology and telecommunications, and agricultural sectors in the form of public-private partnerships in the future,” Sar Kheng said.