Japan PM Shinzo Abe Heads For Vietnam In South East Asia Push
Japan's Shinzo Abe is heading to South East Asia in his first overseas visit as prime minister.
Mr Abe, who was elected in December, will visit Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia in what is being seen as a diplomatic push into the region.
Economic ties are expected to top the agenda but rumbling territorial rows with China are also set to come up.
Mr Abe's first stop is in Hanoi, which like Japan is engaged in a maritime dispute with Beijing.
Japan and China have contesting claims to East China Sea islands, while Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Taiwan all have overlapping claims with Beijing in the South China Sea.
"I want to make this trip the beginning of the Abe cabinet's strategic diplomacy," Kyodo news agency quoted Mr Abe saying ahead of his trip.
"I also want to spur Japan's growth through a stronger partnership with ASEAN (the Association of South East Asian Nations)," he said.
Japan's new finance and foreign ministers have both already visited South East Asian countries this month.
Mr Abe believes Japan has become far too economically dependent on China, says the BBC's Rupert Wingfield-Hayes in Tokyo, and he wants Japan's big companies to see the countries of South East Asia as an alternative base to do business.
He also believes that Japan's natural allies lie to the south - countries like the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand and India, who are democratic, friendly to America and nervous about the growing might of China, our correspondent adds.
Tensions between Tokyo and Beijing have been high since the territorial row over islands called Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China reignited last year.
Chinese government ships have been sailing in and out of what Japan says are its territorial waters around the islands, and in recent weeks Japanese fighters have been scrambled on a number of occasions after what Japan called an airspace violation by a Chinese government plane late last year.
Some Japanese businesses operating in China were also hit by fall-out from the row - last week Mr Abe criticised Beijing for allowing businesses to be damaged to achieve "political objectives".
The nations of Asean, meanwhile, have appeared divided in recent months over how to handle members' disputes over the South China Sea.
Japan's Asahi newspaper said in an editorial that it was vital for "countries facing challenges posed by China's growing economic and military power to bolster their co-operation".
"But there are differences among Asean members in their stances toward China. Any move that creates the perception that Japan is working with the United States to contain China's expansion could cause a rift among Asean countries," it said.
An editorial in China's vocal state-run daily Global Times entitled "Japan's hopes to contain China laughable", meanwhile, said Mr Abe's visit would "not bring China a sense of crisis".
"We can understand that Japan wants to strengthen its interests in South East Asia when the prospects of Sino-Japanese relations look bleak," it said.
But China was the driving force of geopolitical change in Asia, it went on. "Japan's negotiations with claimants in South China Sea disputes will have no effect."