Cuba's President Raul Castro, left, and China's President Xi Jinping at a welcoming ceremony at Revolution Palace in Havana, Cuba last month. Pic: AP.

Abe plays catch-up to Xi’s bundle of handouts, writes Asia Sentinel’s Paul Shortell

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s fruitful visit to South America, which included a proposed US$20 billion fund to finance infrastructure projects in Latin America and the Caribbean and a cornucopia of other benefits, has thoroughly overshadowed a similar trip to Latin America by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Abe hailed his own five country visit as “the opening of a new chapter” in his country’s relations with the region. But further progress will be hampered by competing foreign policy priorities in Tokyo and China’s growing influence in the Western Hemisphere. The Abe mission – the first by a Japanese head of state in a decade – comes on the heels of the mid-July trip by Xi, the sixth journey since 2004 to the region by a Chinese head of state.

Beijing’s commitments to Latin America dwarf those announced by Abe. In addition to the infrastructure bank, Xi also announced plans to increase China’s stock of investment in Latin America to US$250 billion over the next decade. His country’s trade with the region was valued at more than US$255 billion in 2012, with China accounting for the greatest share of commerce in Chile, Peru and Brazil.

Nonetheless, while in Latin America, Abe looked to forge new economic ties and strengthen Tokyo’s geopolitical position. Accompanied by dozens of Japanese business leaders on his circuit of the region, the prime minister pledged to accelerate trade negotiations and signed off on approximately US$700 million of financing for Brazil. Greater access to the region’s growing markets and plentiful natural resources would boost exports, create new opportunities for Japanese firms, and bolster the country’s energy security in the wake of the Fukushima disaster.

Abe has also stepped up efforts to garner international support as antagonism increases between Tokyo and Beijing. Defending controversial reforms of Japan’s pacifist constitution, he deplored attempts to “unilaterally change the status quo” in East Asia and emphasized the need to “respect rule of law of the seas” while meeting with presidents of several Caribbean Community countries in Trinidad and Tobago.

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