Leaders of Japan and Bahrain agreed Saturday to resume a strategic dialogue between resource-poor Japan and a regional grouping of oil-producing Gulf countries, Japanese officials said.
The accord was reached between Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Prince Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa, prime minister of Bahrain, on the first day of a trip by Abe to four Middle Eastern and African countries. Abe is the first Japanese prime minister to visit Bahrain.
"Japan hopes to strengthen and develop the friendly and cooperative relations with Bahrain," which is important to security of the Middle East and Gulf region, Abe said at the outset of their meeting.
The two leaders issued a joint statement showing their agreement to reconvene a ministerial strategic dialogue between Japan and the six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, according to the officials. A dialogue of this kind was held in 2010 and 2011.
Under the statement, they agreed to resume negotiations to conclude a free trade agreement at an early date, the officials said.
Given its dependence on oil imports from the GCC nations, Japan hopes to bolster its ties with them to secure a stable supply of energy.
About 76 percent of Japan's imports of crude oil came from the GCC members as of 2011, according to the Foreign Ministry.
Building on the momentum generated by the agreement with Bahrain, Tokyo aims to urge other GCC nations to also agree to resume FTA talks, the officials said.
Japan and the GCC -- which groups Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates -- started FTA talks in 2006, but negotiations have been suspended since 2009.
Abe's government, under its growth strategy, aims to boost the proportion of trade with countries with which Japan has signed FTAs to 70 percent of total trade by 2018.
Abe also expressed Japan's intention to help Bahrain more in infrastructure development, the officials said.
Bahrain is the first leg of Abe's six-day trip that also includes visits to Kuwait, Qatar and Djibouti.
"I hope I will be able to enhance our ties comprehensively, rather than focusing only on oil and other energy fields," Abe told reporters ahead of his departure.
"I am going to market (Japan) to the rapidly growing Gulf countries," he said.