Japan PM Shinzo Abe begins South East Asia push in Vietnam
Japan's Shinzo Abe is visiting South East Asia, in his first overseas tour as prime minister.
Mr Abe, who was elected in December, is visiting 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 was 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.
Before leaving Japan, Mr Abe told reporters he wanted to make his first foreign trip the start of his government's "strategic diplomacy".
"Currently, the strategic environment in the Asia-Pacific region is going through a dynamic change. During this change, having closer relations with Asean countries contributes to the region's peace and stability and is in Japan's national interest."
Following talks in Hanoi with his Vietnamese counterpart, Nguyen Tan Dung, Mr Abe described the country as "an important partner".
He said Japan and Vietam "share the same challenge, with economies that can complement in each other", but did not specifically refer to China, AP reports.'No crisis'
Japan-China disputed islands
- The archipelago consists of five islands and three reefs
- Japan, China and Taiwan claim them; they are controlled by Japan and form part of Okinawa prefecture
- Japanese businessman Kunioki Kurihara owned three of the islands but sold them to the Japanese state in September
- The islands were also the focus of a major diplomatic row between Japan and China in 2010
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 the Asean regional bloc, 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 People's Daily - the official mouthpiece of the Communist Party - said Japan has "always slavishly imitated the US" and that its frequent visits to Asean countries were "to maintain unanimity with the US' 'return to Asia' strategy".
"Japan also hopes to win over Asean in order to keep pace together against China on the East China Sea and South China Sea issues and occupy a favourable position in terms of building a political and security structure in Asia-Pacific in future," it said.
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."