By Antoni Slodkowski
TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan's deputy prime minister, Taro Aso, travels to Myanmar this week for talks with President Thein Sein to boost relations with the rapidly transforming country and support Japanese business interests in the region.
Aso, who doubles as finance minister, meets Thein Sein and his opposite number Win Shein in the capital Naypyitaw on Thursday in the first high-profile overseas visit by a member of Tokyo's new cabinet since it took office last week.
Prior to his ministerial appointment, Aso had already planned to visit Myanmar as a lawmaker and a member of Japan-Myanmar Association, a group of politicians, businessmen and former diplomats set up to advance Japanese business interests in Myanmar.
Their sales -- and sometimes their premises -- badly damaged by a territorial spat between Tokyo and Beijing, Japanese firms have made an aggressive push back into Myanmar after Thein Sein, a former member of the military junta began overseeing reforms.
Myanmar has introduced a substantial series of social and economic reforms since power was handed to a quasi-civilian government took power in 2011 after nearly half a century of military rule.
Change has attracted large numbers of foreign investors and prompted the United States and European Union to ease longstanding sanctions to encourage further reform.
The move by Aso, one of the closest allies of the conservative premier Shinzo Abe, underscores the importance of the Southeast Asian country, where a joint Japan-Myanmar consortium has signed a deal to develop a 2,400-hectare special economic zone in Thilawa, close to its largest city of Yangon.
The Japan-Myanmar Association has been central to securing state support for the project, including a waiver of most of Myanmar's debt arrears of more than $6 billion necessary to provide fresh loans for the construction of the zone.
Japan has said it will start waiving the arrears at the earliest opportunity in 2013.
Japan may provide an estimated $12.6 billion over several years in aid to build infrastructure around Thilawa, officials with knowledge of the project told Reuters. The plan is to build the first 450 hectares of the park by 2015 and start luring Japanese and global manufacturers.
Aso is to visit Thilawa and meet Japanese business representatives in Yangon on Friday.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe plans his first overseas visit to Washington around the end of January.
($1 = 86.0950 Japanese yen)
(Reporting by Antoni Slodkowski; Editing by Ron Popeski)