Japan appeals to global elite for backing in China dispute
Participants arrive at the congress centrre prior to the opening of the World Economic Forum in Davos on January 21, 2014 - by Eric Piermont
On the opening day of the annual World Economic Forum, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was due to deliver the keynote address to 2,500 business and political leaders.
The address, one of the most high-profile by a Japanese leader in recent decades, has been billed by diplomats as a key staging post in Abe's campaign to drum up backing for Tokyo's stance on what it sees as bullying by its superpower neighbour over disputed islands in the East China Sea.
Much of Abe's landmark speech is expected to be taken up by a review of the progress of "Abenomics", the premier's ambitious bid to end two decades of deflation through a combination of monetary stimulus, fiscal consolidation and -- still to be implemented -- structural reforms.
But sources said Abe would also refer to the current tensions with Beijing over the sovereignty of the uninhabited but potentially mineral-rich islands which Japan calls Senkaku and China calls the Diaoyus.
The dispute is being played out against a backdrop of Japanese fears that China is seeking to exert control over lifeline shipping lanes around its vast coastline and that the United States' commitment to guaranteeing Japanese security is waning.
Tensions over the islands have come perilously close to boiling over into armed clashes on several occasions over the last couple of years and were reignited last month when Abe visited the Yasukuni shrine, which honours Japan's war dead, including convicted war criminals.
China and South Korea see the shrine as a symbol of Tokyo's lack of repentance for the horrors of last century and say it downplays the country's brutal past.
The spat between the East Asian neighbours has since gone global, with Japanese and Chinese envoys in London indulging in a Harry Potter-themed row in the letters pages of the British newspapers and a top Chinese diplomat in Africa branding Abe a "troublemaker" following his recent influence-building tour of the region.
Beijing will have the opportunity to hit back on Friday when Foreign Minister Wang Yi is due to address the forum on the "global dimensions of China's development."
Slide towards diplomatic irrelevance
Abe has been averaging a trip abroad every four weeks over the last year and has visited nearly 30 countries, some of them more than once, as part of a drive to put Japan back on the map after a nearly two-decade slide towards diplomatic irrelevance.
Significant recent steps have included the inauguration of new partnership arrangements with France and Spain, which Tokyo sees as instruments for extending influence in, respectively, Africa and Latin America, countering the economic weight China already has in those regions.
But Abe's visit to the war dead shrine drew not just outrage from the victims of Japan's 20th century aggression, but also drew rebuke from Britain and the United States, underlining the obstacle Japan's past still presents to its attempts to be seen as a 'normal' democratic state.
Reflecting that goal, Abe was expected to highlight Japan's role as a major sponsor of development projects and as a pro-active contributor to global security through peacekeeping and other non-combat military activities that it is seeking to expand.
Abe was also expected to stress the importance of Asia's continued economic growth to the future of the global economy and deliver a veiled warning that it could all come crashing down if China's projection of its military power is allowed to continue unchecked.
The Japanese leader's speech was set to be the highlight of the opening day of a gathering expected to be dominated for the rest of the week by the current, volatile but potentially pivotal period in the history of the Middle East.
Landmark Syrian peace talks opened just down the road in Montreux Wednesday and both Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are due to speak in Davos.
The forum is also taking place against a background of mounting optimism about the prospects for the global economy this year, although that is tempered by concern over the impact of the widening gulf between rich and poor and fears monetary tightening in the US will hit emerging countries by triggering a wave of capital repatriation to the advanced economies.
India's Finance Minister P. Chidambaram played down such fears and predicted that the world's largest democracy would grow by six percent in the financial year 2014 to 2015 and gradually return to its potential expansion rate of eight percent.
"Fiscal consolidation has taken place, there's more FDI flowing into India," he told AFP. "We've added to our reserves, the rupee is stable and a number of other measures have been taken to bring stability into the capital market."