World Bulletin / News Desk
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has joined the parade of world leaders paying court to Cuba following the normalization of relations with the United States earlier this year -- marking the first time a Japanese premier had visited the Caribbean island nation.
Abe flew to Havana from New York, where he had addressed the United Nations General Assembly and warned that advances in North Korea’s nuclear weapons program this year, including two underground explosions, was “substantially more serious than in the past”.
The North Korean weapons program was the main topic of conversation in a rare 70-minute meeting earlier this week with Fidel Castro, the leader of the Cuban Revolution.
Tokyo hopes to use Cuba’s close ties with Pyongyang to open dialogue. It was not clear what kind of influence Cuba has, although it maintains normal relations.
Abe’s subsequent meeting with President Raul Castro, Fidel’s younger brother who succeeded him as Cuban president, covered more traditional bilateral topics such as aid and debt forgiveness. In a previous agreement, Tokyo waived around 120 billion yen ($1.2 billion) of Cuban debt.
The groundwork for Abe’s mission to Cuba was laid by Foreign Minister Kumio Kishida, who visited Cuba in May, shortly after President Barak Obama made his visit. Natsuo Yamaguchi, leader of the Komeito party, Abe’s coalition partner, also made a separate visit last week.
Japan’s most widely traveled premier traditionally brings with him an entourage of private companies hoping to use his influence to open doors and seeking investment opportunities in the countries he visits.
Until recently, Cuban-Japanese trade has encompassed mainly importing tobacco and coffee and exporting machinery. Japan Inc. sees greater opportunities, including in the burgeoning Cuban tourism industry.
Numerous Japanese companies are looking to find more investment opportunities.
Presently 18 Japanese companies are operating in Cuba. Mitsubishi, one of Japan’s largest trading companies, opened a Havana office in July.
Tokyo has one eye on rival China, which also has designs on the Cuban market.
Premier Li Keqiang is scheduled to visit Havana later this month, underscoring the Sino-Japanese competition for new markets in South America.
Abe’s visits to relatively small Caribbean countries like Cuba, Jamaica, and Trinidad-Tobago, which would not necessarily seem like important countries from Japan’s point of view, are actually a part of Japan’ s campaign to become a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council next year.
In these circumstances, the votes of even smaller nations are worth courting. They are members of the General Assembly.
Japan’s long-term goal is to become a permanent, veto-wielding member of the Security Council.