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Japan pledges US$7.4 bil. in aid to Mekong region

TOKYO -- With an eye to China's growing sway in Southeast Asia, Japan pledged about 600 billion yen (US$7.4 billion) in development aid and expertise after a summit Saturday with the leaders of the Mekong River region.

Japan is seeking to strengthen its partnerships with Thailand — by far the biggest economy in the region and already a key Japanese manufacturing hub — Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar. This is the fourth summit since leaders from the six nations first met in 2009.

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda emphasized continued cooperation with the region, saying, “The stability and development of East Asia is not possible without the stability and development of the Mekong region.”

“Japan will continue to vigorously promote cooperation with the Mekong region as a key area for assistance,” he said at a joint press conference.

In a bid to boost Japan's presence in the fledgling resource-rich region, Japan outlined 57 flagship projects that focus on developing infrastructure in the five countries. The projects, which include ports, highways, power plants and high-speed railways, are estimated to be worth a total of about 2.3 trillion yen (US$28 billion), Noda said.

The development aid would be disbursed over three years, and the joint declaration said it would be “accompanied with the transmission of Japanese expertise.”

The Mekong region countries said in the statement that they welcomed Japan's continued strong interest in the region, and promised to utilize the development aid efficiently and effectively.

Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra said the Thai government has pledged about US$77 million for infrastructure development projects and technical assistance in the Mekong region countries.

The summit comes amid surprising political and economic reforms unfolding in Myanmar, whose economy has languished for years under a military junta that last year handed power over to a nominally civilian government. The reforms have also started moves toward the lifting of Western sanctions against Myanmar, also known as Burma.

Myanmar President Thein Sein, who a day earlier told Japanese business leaders that his impoverished nation welcomed Japanese investment, pledged to “make every effort toward developing the economy, environment, human resources and infrastructure.”

Meanwhile, Japan has agreed to forgive Myanmar 303.5 billion yen (US$3.72 billion) in debt and overdue charges, and resume development loans to the Southeast Asian country in a move to help foster the nascent democracy's economic development.

They have decided to cooperate in drawing up a blueprint for the Thilawa Special Economic Zone in Myanmar, potentially giving Japanese firms a leg-up over rivals in winning infrastructure projects for the area.

Last week, the Tokyo Stock Exchange and Daiwa Securities Group said they had reached an agreement with the Central Bank of Myanmar to help establish a stock market by 2015. On Thursday, NTT Data Corp. said it will establish a subsidiary in Yangon, citing the country's “large potential.”

All Nippon Airways Co. is also preparing to add service to Myanmar this fiscal year.

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From left: Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, Laos' Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, Myanmar President Thein Sein, Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and Vietnam Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung join hands before the Mekong-Japan Summit in Tokyo, Saturday, April 21. (AP)

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