May 26, 2006

Japan courts Pacific island states in summit

By Elaine Lies

NAGO, Japan (Reuters) - Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro
Koizumi courted leaders of Pacific island nations in a summit
on Friday with pledges of support for greater prosperity a
month after China offered its own sweeping economic aid

The Pacific island states offer little economically to
Japan, but their support as a bloc is sought in international
forums such as the United Nations where Japan has been
campaigning, with scant success, for a permanent seat on the
Security Council.

The two-day summit on Japan's southern island of Okinawa
brings together leaders from most of the 14 Pacific island
nations that are members of the Pacific Island Forum for talks
on issues including global warming, the regional economy, and
prevention of diseases such as bird flu and HIV/AIDS.

"The support framework we will present at this summit aims
at a stronger, more prosperous Pacific ," Koizumi, wearing a
traditional Okinawan shirt, said in his opening remarks.

Japan is set to make an offer of new aid that media reports
say could be as much as 40 billion yen ($360 million) over the
next three years.

"We applaud Japan for remaining ... a significant
development and trade partner for the Pacific region, and look
forward to your continuing support," said Sir Michael Somare,
prime minister of Papua New Guinea and co-chair of the summit.

During a similar gathering in Fiji last month, Chinese
leader Wen Jiabao offered a sweeping package of economic aid to
nations that support a one-China policy, measures including
zero-tariff agreements and 3 billion yuan ($375 million) in

"We hope to offer a forceful package of assistance as a
manifestation of our friendship and commitment to the Pacific
island nations," a Foreign Ministry official told reporters
earlier this week.

All the island nations support Japan's bid for a permanent
seat on the U.N. Security Council, which China opposes.

Around 30 people gathered near the summit venue at a hotel
in Nago to protest the controversial decision to relocate a
U.S. airbase to their city, shouting "Koizumi, go home!"

"We absolutely don't want the U.S. military here," said
65-year-old Zenji Shimada.


China and Taiwan have long competed for influence in the
South Pacific, with seven nations recognizing China and six
recognizing Taiwan.

A few, such as Kiribati, Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea, have
switched back and forth, seeking to gain the best aid.

Sino-Japanese ties have chilled due to a range of issues
including a territorial row and Koizumi's visits to a Tokyo
shrine for war dead seen as a symbol of Japan's past

A Japanese ministry official denied that Japan and China
were vying for clout with the island nations. "We don't have
any intention of getting involved in any competition and
welcome any role that China may want to play," the official

Analysts, though, painted a different picture.

"There's no doubt that they don't want Chinese influence to
get too strong in this region," said independent diplomatic
commentator Tetsuya Ozeki.

For low-lying nations such as Tuvalu, which supports
Taiwan, diplomatic rivalry takes a back seat to more pressing
issues such as the rising seas that are slowly eating away its

"We have to respect their respective intentions, but I
think that is something for the countries themselves to
resolve," Tuvalu Prime Minister Maatia Toafa told Reuters.

"We just see them as friends."

The Pacific Islands forum was established in 1971 and
consists of 14 Pacific Island nations, including Australia and
New Zealand. New Zealand will be represented by Foreign
Minister Winston Peters and Australia by Teresa Gambaro,
parliamentary secretary to Foreign Minister Alexander Downer.

Japan has sponsored regional gatherings every three years
since 1997.