By Antoni Slodkowski
TOKYO (Reuters) - Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's first overseas trip will see him visit Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand in January, aiming to bolster ties with the growing Asian economies as relations with Beijing stay tense.
Abe had hoped to first visit Washington in order to strengthen Japan's alliance with the United States, but the visit was postponed due to President Barack Obama's tight schedule, Japan's top government spokesman said on Thursday.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said the ASEAN-member countries that Abe will visit are at the forefront of Asian economic growth and Japan, mired in deflation and stuck in its fourth recession since 2000, should expand economic ties.
"It's important to strengthen the cooperation with the ASEAN countries to ensure peace and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific region," said Suga, adding that the countries were also strategically important for Tokyo.
Japan's relations with China took a dive last September after a flare up in a long-standing territorial dispute over islets in the East China Sea claimed by both countries.
Aiming to offset the economic impact of the feud, Abe has been reaching out to other Asian neighbors, sending its foreign minister on a tour around Southeast Asian countries and dispatching special envoys to South Korea and Russia.
Suga, however, stressed that Abe's trip was not aimed at counter-balancing China's influence in the region, which has seen an increase in territorial disputes amid fierce competition for natural resources.
"China is an important country for Japan," he said stressing the strategic nature of Tokyo's bilateral ties with the world's second largest economy.
Before his election last month, Abe had pledged a tough stance in the territorial row with China, but experts are hoping he will take a pragmatic stance now that he is in power.
Abe came to power partly on a nationalist platform and wants to revise Japan's U.S.-drafted constitution adopted after World War Two. U.S. officials have indicated they would like to see Tokyo loosen constitutional restraints on its military to allow a bigger global security role.
But Abe's government will stand by a landmark 1995 apology for Japan's wartime aggression, said Suga. Any revision to would upset Asian nations that suffered from Tokyo's past militarism.
(Reporting by Antoni Slodkowski)