Shortly after China's President Xi Jinping visited Latin America, Japanese PM Shinzo Abe has started a tour of the region to boost ties. But the visit is unlikely to counter China's influence, says analyst Laura Tedesco.
Shinzo Abe left on Friday, July 25, on a five-nation tour of Latin America and the Caribbean. The Japanese Prime Minister is visiting Mexico, Trinidad and Tobago, Colombia, Chile and Brazil just a few days after Chinese President Xi Jinping wrapped up a nine-day trip to Latin America, as the Asian powers set their sights on the resource-rich region and its emerging economies. Alongside boosting economic ties, Abe is expected to discuss a proposal to increase the number of permanent seats on the UN Security Council to 11 from the current five.
Moreover, Japanese media reported that Mizuho, one of the country's biggest banks, is to sign a deal for about 500 million USD worth of loans to Brazil's state-run oil firm, Petrobras, to help fund oil exploration off the country's coast.
Laura Tedesco, a research associate at the think tank FRIDE says in a DW interview that while Abe's visit is likely to boost trade ties, it will not have the same impact as the Chinese trip given the fast pace at which ties between China and the region have been developing over the past years.
DW: What is in your view the main purpose of Abe's Latin America tour?
The main purpose of the tour is to promote economic relations between Japan and Latin America. Since Prime Minister Shinzo Abe came to power in 2012, he has tried to expand Japan's political and economic relations. His visit could be regarded as a follow up of the trip made by his Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida in April 2013 to Mexico, Peru and Panama.
Tedesco: "The relationship between Japan and these Latin American countries is strenghtening, but it is still limited"
How meaningful are Japan's ties to each of the countries Abe is visiting?
The relationship between Japan and these countries is strenghtening but it is still limited. Japan is not a major trade partner for Latin American countries, and Latin America is not a major trade partner for Japan. According to the Brazilian external trade office, trade between Brazil and Japan amounted to some 15 billion USD last year. Trade between China and Brazil, however, reached 83.3 billion USD during the same period.
However, Japan is the fifth market for Brazilian exports and Brazil is the seventh. Abe will meet Dilma Rouseff on August 1 and the Japanese PM is expected to explain his country's proposals to improve roads and infrastructure to facilitate grains exports. He may also make references to agreements in the oil sector.
Regarding Mexico, trade between the two countries is around 22 billion USD, with Japanese investment in Mexico amounting to 16.5 billion USD over the past eight years. In Chile, the main objective of the visit is to discuss the Trans-Pacific Partnership. In Colombia, Abe probably wants to deepen the negotiations for a Free Trade Agreement which started in 2012. In Trinidad y Tobago, Abe will participate in the first summit between his country and CARICOM.
Is this Shinzo Abe's response to a similar trip by Chinese President Xi Jinping which just ended on July 23?
Latin America is hosting a lot of visits. Vladimir Putin from Russia and Xi Jinping from China were there in the last few weeks. Both China and Russia want to expand economic deals with the region and reach some political agreements. Now it is the turn of Japan. Politically, Abe could have more differences with Latin American politicians and he cannot be as generous as China has been with Argentina, Venezuela and Cuba.
However, democratic Japan should be a more natural ally to Latin American democracies than China or Russia. We are likely to see in this visit that democracies are not pulling together and probably Latin America would not support Japan in its dispute with China.
Do you think Abe's visit and the deals signed will be enough to counter the growing Chinese influence in the area?
We have to wait and see, but my impression would be that this visit will not have the same impact as the Chinese trip. The relationship between China and Brazil or Venezuela or Argentina has been developing rapidly in the last few years. This could be the case for Japan in the near future but Japan is not as economically powerful as China.
Abe will attend the first summit meeting between Japan and Caricom - a Caribbean trade bloc. How strategic are these talks for all participants?
This meeting could be an opportunity to establish a deeper relationship between these two actors and to examine and design joint strategic goals for the future. The first Japan-Caricom consultation took place in 1993. Two decades later, these two players are trying to improve and expand their relationship in culture, trade and tourism. The year 2014 has been named as the Japan-Caricom Friendship Year.
Abe is reportedly also seeking to finalize the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade pact with Mexico and Chile. How significant is this deal?
This is quite significant and it could well be one of the main goals of this trip. Japan has Economic Partnership Agreements and Free Trade Areas with these two countries so the Trans-Pacific Partnership is set to be the culmination of a well-established relationship.
Abe could have more differences with Latin American politicians and he cannot be as generous as Chinese President Xi Jinping - seen here - has been with Argentina, Venezuela and Cuba
Caricom members make up seven percent of the UN General Assembly, and the Japanese government has said that one of the trip's objectives is to find support for a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council next year. Do you believe the trip will help Japan secure the backing of these countries?
Japan will probably aim to achieve their support. We have to wait and see the reaction from the Caricom countries. Five of the 14 members of the bloc recognize Taiwan and Japan is trying to take advantage of this.
Laura Tedesco is Research Associate at the think tank FRIDE and Professor of Political Science and International Relations at Saint Louis University/Madrid Campus.