Japan's PM Abe to visit S-E Asia, gives up US visit

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will visit three Southeast Asian countries next week, the government said on Thursday, after abandoning a plan to make Washington the first destination of his term.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said Abe will visit Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia from January 16 to 19, his first foreign tour since taking office late last month.

"It is important that we strengthen relations of cooperation with ASEAN countries to secure the peace and prosperity of this region, as the strategic environment changes," Suga said.

Japan has courted the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which has served as a major economic growth driver in the region, as something of a counterbalance to the rising might of China.

Abe had earlier said he wanted to make the United States his first destination, stressing the importance of reinvigorating Tokyo's relationship with Washington.

But White House officials have said President Barack Obama's schedule was tight, as he prepares for his inauguration ceremony, the State of the Union address and a new cabinet, along with a number of foreign policy challenges.

Suga said Japan would continue to negotiate with the White House to schedule a visit soon.

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