By ELAINE KURTENBACH
2013-12-14 02:42 PM
TOKYO (AP) -- Japan on Saturday pledged 20 trillion yen ($19.2 billion) in aid to Southeast Asian nations over the next five years to help close the region's development gap and improve its disaster preparedness.
The announcement at a summit meeting with the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations comes as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has stepped up Japan's courtship of the region of more than 600 million people, an agenda that has gained momentum in reaction to China's growing assertiveness in territorial disputes.
The development assistance, mainly in the form of concessional loans, also will focus on efforts to promote development in the Mekong river region, where economies have lagged behind. It will also fund transport projects.
The summit held in Tokyo marks 40 years of ties between Japan and ASEAN.
In a speech Friday, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono welcomed Japan's efforts to fortify regional security but urged transparency in Tokyo's efforts to raise its military profile.
Japan has been stepping up economic cooperation and investment across Southeast Asia, especially since 2012, when anti-Japanese riots flared in China after Tokyo nationalized a group of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea that are also claimed by Beijing.
As the world's third-largest economy, Japan also plays a crucial role in Asian finance.
On Friday, Tokyo agreed to expand currency swaps and other arrangements with Indonesia and the Philippines that are meant to help stabilize Asian financial markets. Japan also renewed a swap agreement with Singapore, the Finance Ministry said.
In the first six months of this year, Japanese investment in Southeast Asia jumped 89 percent to nearly 1 trillion yen ($9.7 billion) and automakers and electronics companies expanded their factories in the region.