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Japanese PM Visits Thailand Friday - 2002-01-11

Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi is visiting Thailand Friday on the third leg of his five-nation trip to southeast Asia. The Japanese leader seeks to boost economic ties with the region, and is to give a speech outlining a new policy Sunday.

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi arrived Friday in Bangkok and met with Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and senior Thai officials. A member of Mr. Koizumi's delegation says the visit is meant to convey what he calls Japan's commitment to cooperation with Southeast Asian nations.

The official said Prime Minister Koizumi is very satisfied with his trip.

Hundreds of protesters Friday demonstrated in Bangkok against the proposed construction of two coal-fired power plants near the Gulf of Thailand, 250 kilometers southwest of Bangkok. The Japanese Bank for International Cooperation is a major creditor for the projects.

Small groups of protesters greeted the Japanese leader on his two previous stops, the Philippines and Malaysia. Those groups were seeking reparations for the Japanese occupation during World War II.

A professor of economics at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University, Sompop Manarangsan, notes that during the economic crisis that began nearly five years ago, new Japanese foreign investment was largely re-directed to China and the United States. Now, Sompop says, because of the economic downturn in the United States and tensions with China, Japan is looking to this region once again. "So I think that it is the time for Japan to come back, to strengthen and to continue pursuing its investment in this area. It is much cheaper than it used to be."

Analysts say Japan also wants to challenge China's growing influence in the region. They note that China and the 10-members of the Association of South East Asian Nations, or ASEAN, last year agreed to form a free trade area in 10 years. They say Japan would like to do the same.

After Thailand, Prime Minister Koizumi visits Indonesia and Singapore.

On Sunday, he delivers a major speech in Singapore. Professor Sampop says Mr. Koizumi is likely to propose a new relationship with ASEAN nations. "The Japanese leader may present some views about the present and near-future relationship of Japan and ASEAN, to change ASEAN members from the donor-receiver to the more economic partner."

Prime Minister Koizumi Sunday is to sign a free trade agreement with Singapore, the first ever for Japan.