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Last updated: March 31, 2013 10:23 am
Japanese premier Shinzo Abe moved to boost ties with another Chinese neighbour at the weekend, visiting Mongolia where he offered increased foreign aid and referred to the countries’ “shared democratic values”.
It was the first visit to Mongolia by a Japanese prime minister in seven years. The trip underscored the two priorities of the foreign policy that Mr Abe and his centre-right government have pursued since winning power in December: gaining access to natural resources and building alliances to counter the rising regional clout of China.
Mr Abe drew criticism from some in China in January during his first trip abroad as leader – to Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia – for laying out a vision for a coalition of Asian democracies that would co-operate in what appeared to be unspoken but obvious opposition to China.
Mr Abe persisted with similar language in Mongolia. In an opinion piece published in a Mongolian newspaper, he called the two countries “partners with shared values of freedom and democracy”.
In an allusion to territorial disputes involving China – including Japan’s stand-off with it over the ownership of the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea – as well as militant signals from North Korea, he added that international problems “should be solved by peaceful means and not by force”.
In meetings with Mongolian President Tsakhia Elbegdorj and Prime Minister Norov Altankhuyag, Mr Abe agreed to provide Y4.2bn ($45m) in low-interest loans to fit coal-fired electric power plants in Mongolia with pollution-reducing technology.
Mr Abe also promoted the cause of Japanese heavy-machinery companies seeking to build a metro system for Ulan Bator.
Japan is already Mongolia’s biggest foreign-aid donor and is negotiating a trade agreement with the country. The government of Mongolia, a landlocked country sandwiched between China and Russia, has been focusing on developing closer ties with countries such as Japan and the US to help counterbalance occasionally strained ties with Moscow and Beijing.
A big target for Japan is the Tavan Tolgoi coal deposit, one of the biggest in the world, located in the Gobi desert. Japan’s demand for fossil fuels has jumped since the March 2011 Fukushima disaster all but shut down its nuclear-power sector. Mr Abe urged Mongolian leaders to consider allowing Japanese trading companies and other groups to participate in developing the field.
Japanese companies were initially left out of a 2011 plan to develop half of the Tavan Tolgoi deposit but those plans have changed and the government plans to build a railroad from the mine that could one day export coal to Japan via Russia.
“Increased investment from Japan would strongly accelerate Mongolia’s economic growth,” Mr Abe said during his visit.
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