As part of its campaign to stem China's "aggressive and assertive" territorial expansion in the region, Japan recently announced billions of dollars in assistance to five countries in Southeast Asia.
After much shaking of hands and expressions of commitment to forge even closer relations in the future, Shinzo Abe, the Japanese prime minister, signed an agreement on July 4 to provide an additional 5.59 billion euros ($6.17 billion) in overseas development aid to five nations that share the Mekong River in southeast Asia.
The aid will be provided to Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam over the next three years and is the largest lump sum since the six nations first held what has become known as the Mekong-Japan Summit Meeting in 2009.
The leaders agreed that because of their strategic position close to both the booming markets of China and India, the nations that surround the Mekong River have the potential to become a "global growth center."
"Japan will contribute to infrastructure development of the region in both quality and quantity," Abe said. "The Mekong region and Japan are partners that will develop together."
More important reason
Analysts agree that assisting developing countries in other parts of Asia is an important commitment and responsibility for Japan, but they suggest that Abe's other rationale for such largesse - and arguably the more important reason - was hinted at in another comment by the Japanese prime minister.
"Peace and stability in the Mekong region, which is a strategic point for land and sea transportation, is extremely important for Japan," Abe said.
And although he never mentioned China by name, the regional heavyweight that has in recent months been ignoring the protests of other nations to effectively seize complete control of disputed reefs and shoals in the South China Sea was never far from any of the participants' minds.
"It is a very significant amount of money for Japan to provide to these countries and I do not believe it is a coincidence that this announcement comes at the same time as the situation in the South China Sea is in the news every day," Yoichi Shimada, a professor of international relations at Fukui Prefectural University, told DW.
Abe administration serious
"It is a large amount and I think it shows just how serious the Abe administration is about the issue of territory and sovereignty in the region at the moment," he said.
Financing is one of the limited number of options open to Japan to assist like-minded nations, Shimada pointed out, given that the terms of Japan's constitution forbid the commitment of military forces to assist the nation's allies.
And while conservatives in Japan would like nothing more than for Japanese warships to assist in patrolling the waters of the Western Pacific - and Washington would equally welcome such a development - that is simply not possible at the moment.
Professor Shimada says that Abe "chose his words carefully" at the conference. "The Japanese government would hesitate to admit that it is acting to counter China, but it is clear that Abe's first priority is finding effective ways to counter Beijing's aggressive and assertive actions."
Go Ito, a professor of international relations at Tokyo's Meiji University, echoes that belief, but adds that the Japanese have been prompted to act swiftly after China announced plans to set up the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB).
"Abe's initiative is a direct reaction to China setting up the new regional bank, which is in direct competition with the Asian Development Bank, which was set up in 1966 by Japan," Professor Ito said.
Discontent among nations
"It is true that there has been some discontent among developing nations that the ADB takes too long to approve projects, but on the other hand, there is certain to be concern in recipient nations about the degree of influence that Beijing is going to exert over the new bank," he said.
Countries that oppose China's regional policies, such as its occupation and development of islands in the South China Sea, might find that their applications for funds for infrastructure being turned down, some analysts say.
And China has been clever in finding other ways of exerting pressure over some of its neighbors. For some years, China has quietly been damming rivers just before they cross its borders, including the Mekong and the Brahmaputra before it crosses into India. That gives Beijing the ability to instantly cut water supplies to large areas of Southeast Asia.
But Southeast Asian nations do find themselves walking something of a diplomatic tightrope between Beijing and Tokyo, Meiji University's Ito said.
"They do have a dilemma; they have for many years depended on the huge Chinese market for their products, but they cannot afford to become too close to Beijing," he said. "At the same time, they cannot afford to offend their giant neighbor."