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Japan, Mekong nations vow maritime cooperation amid China's rise

This supplied photo shows Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga taking part in an online summit with leaders of five Southeast Asian countries along the Mekong River. (Photo courtesy of the Cabinet Public Relations Office)(Kyodo)

TOKYO (Kyodo) -- Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and leaders of five Southeast Asian countries along the Mekong River agreed Friday to cooperate in achieving maritime stability in the Indo-Pacific region amid China's rising assertiveness at sea.

    Suga pledged to provide the Mekong countries -- Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam -- with a web portal site which compiles and shares crucial maritime information that would affect their security, economy and environment.

    "The Mekong area is the core of the Indo-Pacific" region, Suga said at the outset of an online summit open to the media, vowing to further strengthen his country's ties with the five nations and continue to exercise its leadership in the area.

    Japan sees the Mekong area as geopolitically important as it is located between two major regional powers, India and China, and faces vital shipping lanes in the South China Sea.

    Beijing has been increasing its assertiveness in territorial claims in the South China Sea, with Vietnam among those with overlapping claims there.

    Suga also said Japan will provide training for at least 100 officials in the Mekong countries for a year to enhance their ability in understanding the situation in the sea and help them protect their maritime interests.

    According to a joint statement released by the six nations, they shared a view that digital transformation of businesses will provide "solutions to socio-economic challenges for the Mekong region," especially in response to the pandemic.

    The leaders of the six nations also agreed to strengthen supply chains through production base diversification aiming to minimize the risk of disruptions posed by the novel coronavirus, the statement read.

    The Mekong leaders have expressed appreciation for Japan's initiatives to provide funds to revitalize virus-hit economies including extending $230 million and $270 million in loans to Cambodia and Myanmar, respectively.

    They also welcomed Japan's commitment to host the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics, postponed to next summer due to the novel coronavirus, saying the games will be "the perfect opportunity to develop people-to-people connectivity" among the nations.

    The heads of Japan and the Mekong countries have met annually since 2009, but due to the coronavirus, they held a conference online this year. They are scheduled to hold their next summit in Japan next year.

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