COLOMBO: Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono’s visit to Pakistan, Sri Lanka and the Maldives from January 2 to 8, was mainly aimed at getting these countries to accept Japan’s thesis that China’s economic and strategic expansion in the Indo-Pacific region has ulterior motives and that countries in the region had better be wary of the consequences of embracing China unreservedly.

But Pakistan, Sri Lanka and the Maldives have domestic concerns and objectives which have made them accept the Chinese embrace almost unreservedly.

There is a felt need among them for rapid infrastructural development. For that, they need adequate and readily available finance. China has understood these needs and is meeting them with gusto unmatched by any other big power, whether regional or global.

The disparity of concerns between Japan and these countries was evident in the official and non-official coverage of Kono’s visit to the three countries, though there were significant points of convergence and common grounds for cooperation.

Kono’s first port of call was Pakistan. A Kyodo report on his visit between January 2 and 4, said that the Japanese Foreign Minister told his Pakistani counterpart, Khawaja Asif, that South Asian countries must not allow “loopholes” in the U.N. sanctions against North Korea.

Kono’s request stems from Pakistan’s long standing relations with North Korea in the nuclear field in defiance of its ally, the US. In 2002, U.S officials had announced that Pakistan exported gas centrifuges to help North Korea enrich uranium and construct a nuclear bomb. While Pakistani military officials stoutly denied their involvement, the report did not trigger downgrading of Islamabad-Pyongyang security partnership.

In fact, the then Pakistani President, Gen.Pervez Musharraf, prevented the US from interrogating AQ Khan, the Pakistani nuclear scientist who had assisted the nuclear programs of North Korea, Iran, and Libya.

According to the Japanese Foreign Ministry, Minister Kono urged Pakistan to sign the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and the proposed Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty, treaties dear to Japan which is in the forefront of the campaign against nuclear weapons. Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif evaded the issue of signing these treaties because of the India factor, but said that Pakistan is striving to fully implement the relevant U.N. Security Council resolutions against North Korea. Japan should welcome the departure from Islamabad’s earlier policy on North Korea.

Asif reiterated Pakistan's commitment to a peaceful, stable and secure Afghanistan and support for an Afghan-led and an Afghan-owned reconciliation process in which the much despised Taliban will be involved. Pakistan is now engaged in a trilateral effort to bring about peace and political stability in Afghanistan involving Kabul, Islamabad and Beijing. But this is against the wishes of the US and India which have their own interests and game plan in Afghanistan.

However, being more interested in maritime security as an island and as a trading country, Japan is likely to leave landlocked Afghanistan to the US and its regional strategic partner, India.

Foreign Minister Asif briefed Kono on Pakistan's efforts to enhance regional connectivity and development through China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a part of Xi Jinping’s One Belt One Road Initiative (OBOR) for global infrastructure development. But Japan is on a campaign to point out the flaws in the OBOR, especially an alleged lack of transparency and propensity to push recipient countries into a debt trap.

However, the Japanese and Pakistani Foreign Ministers were in agreement on the need to tackle terrorism because Japan is extremely concerned about threats to maritime security from pirates and terrorists, and Pakistan is wracked by radical Islamic terrorism.

According to the Pakistani Foreign Office, Kono appreciated the “enormous sacrifices” made by Pakistan in the fight against terrorism and stressed the need for a coordinated international effort to fight against “extremism and terrorism.” But the Japanese version of the talks did not go beyond saying that there was an agreement on counter terrorism cooperation.

Pakistan briefed Japan about Indian “atrocities” and human rights violations in Kashmir; and spelt out Pakistan's credentials for membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). While Japan is not concerned about Kashmir because of its special relationship with India, it is wary about Pakistan’s credentials to be part of the NSG given its alleged past role in proliferation.

At his next halt in Sri Lanka, between January 4 and 6, Kono laid stress on maritime security issues, as both Japan and Sri Lanka are maritime countries and maritime insecurity is the bee in Japan’s bonnet. Kono explained Japan’s "free and open Indo-Pacific" strategy and sought Sri Lanka's understanding of the importance of maintaining a maritime order based on the Rule of Law, indirectly pointing an accusing finger at China.

Significantly, Kono visited Colombo harbor and offered support for the development of the port. This is significant as China has built and is operating one of the successful container terminals there. However, the Sri Lankan government has sought Japanese aid to develop Trincomalee harbor but Tokyo has its eyes on Colombo, the county’s only functioning international harbor.

Sri Lanka is also a destination for Chinese investment in line with Beijing's OBOR initiative. Kono signaled Japan’s willingness to cooperate with OBOR initiative in Sri Lanka but stressed the importance of the projects under it being transparent and fair. But observers wonder how far funds-strapped Sri Lanka can go in scrutinizing Chinese terms.

Japan is keen on aiding infrastructural development in Sri Lanka especially in the field of health and waste management. Sri Lanka in turn would like Japan to invest in infrastructural projects, preferably in collaboration with India to accommodate Big Brother in the island’s development projects.

Kono explained Japan’s “Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy,” and sought cooperation in the fields of maritime security and defense. Sri Lanka said that it also believes in a maritime system based on the rule of law and freedom of navigation. However, Sri Lanka cannot go the whole hog and be a front runner in this campaign because of its financial dependence on China.

In his last stopover in the Maldives, from January 6 to 8, Kono sought Male’s cooperation in promoting Tokyo’s Indo-Pacific strategy amid China’s rising clout in the Indian Ocean archipelago. He claimed that his Maldivian counterpart Mohammed Asim shared Japan’s views on the Indo-Pacific strategy. Maldives is certainly concerned about maritime security as an island nation but it will not stridently support the US-Japan line for fear of antagonizing China.

The Maldivian President Abdulla Yameen told Kano that the focus in the Maldives is on development cooperation because the country is on the path to “transformational, and comprehensive economic change”. Yameen acknowledged that Japan is a pioneer in development assistance to the Maldives and has funded schemes in all areas, especially shore management, mitigation of the effects of climate change, and capacity building in the development sector.

Predictably, the Maldivian side focused on identifying potential areas of mutually beneficial opportunities for Japanese businesses and increasing tourist arrivals.