Yasuo Fukuda, Japan’s prime minister, said on Thursday that the Association of South East Asian Nations would play a central role in uniting what would be the world’s dominant economic region in the next 30 years.

The speech, which was billed as a big policy announcement on Asia, may be seen as an attempt to re-energise his premiership, which has become bogged down in domestic issues.

Mr Fukuda sought to build on the famous 1977 Fukuda Doctrine of friendlier Asian ties formulated by his father, Takeo, when he was the prime minister.

“Asia has now come to the fore as a central player in world history. This region is a network of never-ending expansion and development linked to the rest of the globe by the sea,” he said. The countries bordering the Pacific were like those around the Mediterranean 500 years ago. In 30 years, he predicted, the world’s top 10 economies would be Pacific-rim nations.

Mr Fukuda pointed to the huge advances in living standards since 1977, when per capita income in many Asian nations was similar to that in Africa. But more had to be done to conquer regional income disparities.

Japan would help by supporting poorer nations and by contributing to Asian public good, such as protecting sea lanes from the threat of piracy and terrorists. Tokyo would also appoint an ambassador to Asean, he said.

He proposed establishing a regional disaster relief organisation capable of mounting a co-ordinated response to disasters such as the recent cyclone in Burma and China’s earthquake.

Mr Fukuda’s speech, delivered in Tokyo to an international conference on the future of Asia, may be regarded as an attempt to throw weight behind a regional grouping independent of China.

Osamu Takashita, deputy cabinet secretary, said there was a tendency to jump to the conclusion that Tokyo was seeking to offset Beijing’s growing diplomatic muscle. He insisted that Mr Fukuda was trying to “move away from that mode of thinking”.

Mr Fukuda praised a recent Sino-Japanese rapprochement. “Japan-China bilateral relations have adopted a global viewpoint for the first time. Clearly it is critical that China, as a major nation, develop in a stable manner, and for that sake Japan intends to co-operate with China where it is able,” he said.

Stronger regional co-operation was compatible with the US-Japan alliance, the bedrock of Tokyo’s post-war security. Washington’s guarantee of peace in the Pacific facilitated the promotion of Asian diplomatic efforts, Mr Fukuda said.

In what appeared to be an attempt to stress his foreign policy credentials, the prime minister said he would attend a United Nations conference in Rome next month to address the global food crisis.

Pledging to make rising food prices a central issue in the Group of Eight summit he hosts in July, Mr Fukuda said Japan would release some of its rice stocks to the Philippines. Further offers of help could follow when he welcomes 45 African leaders to a summit in Yokohama next week.

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