- The Japanese government stressed the importance of supporting the 10 member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in its annual report on foreign aid released Friday, as Tokyo seeks to secure the safety of a vital sea lane lying near the bloc amid China's growing maritime assertiveness.
"ASEAN countries are an extremely important region from both political and economic perspectives as they lie along Japan's sea lane and have strong economic ties," with many Japanese companies operating in the nations, the Foreign Ministry said in its latest white paper on the country's official development assistance.
"Stability and development of this region will have a major influence on Japan's safety and prosperity," the paper said.
The sea lane stretching from the Strait of Malacca to the South China Sea is seen by Japan as a key shipping route for oil and other imports.
But China's massive and fast-paced land reclamation work in the sea, deemed as a way of asserting its territorial claims and maritime interests, has created tensions in the area, stoking concerns in neighboring countries that Beijing is pursuing militarization of the sea.
Japan's assistance to ASEAN will cover infrastructure development, strengthening of the rule of law and maritime safety, among others, according to the paper, which was presented to the Cabinet on Friday.
ASEAN groups together Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.
The paper also said Japan seeks to establish "an order based on universal values" in the East Asia region, including freedom, democracy, respect for fundamental human rights and the rule of law.
As for infrastructure development, the paper said Japan intends to promote high-quality infrastructure, which would "make Asia the center of global economic growth," create jobs and offer technology to local people.
Japan plans to expand its aid for infrastructure building in Asia, seeking "not only quality but quantity" in outcomes, the paper said. Together with the Asian Development Bank, Japan will expand total investment to Asian nations to around $110 billion by 2020, up about 30 percent from current levels, it added.
The report showed that Japan's ODA in 2014 totaled about $15.71 billion, down 30.3 percent from the previous year and ranking fourth after the United States, Britain and Germany. Southeast Asian nations are among the key recipients of Japanese ODA.
Last year, Japan revised the Development Cooperation Charter for the first time since 2003, highlighting its stance of using ODA to protect its national interests amid changes in global environment.
Under the charter, Japanese aid can be used to support foreign armed forces in noncombat operations such as disaster relief, infrastructure building and coast guard activities. Until the revision, ODA had usually been disbursed for projects to build infrastructure and reduce poverty in recipient countries.