At Davos, a Japanese bull in a China shop
Kevin Rafferty says the alarming references to war in Abe's speech at Davos again raise fears that the Japanese prime minister lacks the finesse to handle his country's delicate ties with China
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe went to Davos to tell the world's business elite that Japan is back and is open for business. But on the way he tripped himself up and - yet again - opened old sores concerning Japan's troubled relations with China.
His performance had even seasoned commentators wondering and worrying whether Abe in particular and Japan in general understand the complexity and delicate balance of relations in Asia or whether he is spoiling for a fight.
In his set speech, delivered in well-practised English replete with expressive hand gestures to indicate he was in charge, Abe devoted most of his time to promises that Japan is on the verge of sweeping domestic reforms that are going to transform the country.
He concluded with a plea for co-operation between countries and added that, "The dividends of growth must not be wasted on military expansion. We must use it to invest in innovation and human capital, which will further boost growth in the region".
Without naming China, he went on, "Military budgets should be made completely transparent and there should be public disclosure in a form that can be verified." In addition, disputes should be resolved through "dialogue and the rule of law, and not through force and coercion".
A leading Chinese professor attending the Davos meetings immediately labelled Abe a "troublemaker" and compared him to the erratic North Korean leadership.
Just in case you think it unfair to judge him for comments on international matters when he was speaking mostly about Japan and at a session which is traditionally devoted to business, Abe went on to talk with international journalists and make some strange and rather scary comments about relations with China.
Most strangely, he compared Japan's situation with China today to that of Germany and Britain on the eve of the Great War. He said the two countries today had a "similar situation" as Britain and Germany had in 1914, including a strong trading partnership, but this had not prevented tensions that spilled over into war.
Abe did add that he would regard any "inadvertent" conflict as a disaster. When questioned further, he blamed the steady increase in China's military spending as a major source of instability in the Pacific region. He mentioned upcoming talks between the US and Japan on security and said that Japan "would very much like to strengthen our military relationship with the US".
A Chinese journalist asked again about Abe's visit to the Yasukuni Shrine where the souls of Japanese war criminals are supposedly enshrined with the 2.4 million Japanese who died in war. Abe responded that he had intended to pay tribute to the dead of many wars and pointed out that he had specifically called at Yasukuni for Japan "never again to fight a war".
Japanese officials had flagged the event as important, with Abe about to say something significant. Lionel Barber, the editor of the Financial Times, tweeted, "Worry of the day: Abe's fourth arrow warning about China and comparisons with Britain/Germany pre 1914".
The paper's chief economics commentator, Martin Wolf, said in a blog piece that Abe's view may be realistic, "and maybe such realism will protect the world from such a calamity. But it frightens the wits out of me. I was particularly struck by the almost casual way in which Mr Abe cited the World War I precedent. I wish the US would step more decisively on this nonsense".
Interestingly, Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany gave an interview to the Daily Telegraph some years before the first world war, in which he protested that it was "one of my dearest wishes to live on the best of terms with England … How can I convince a nation against its will?" The kaiser thought he was reaching out to the British people, but the interview proved a key in turning popular opinion against him.
The Zero Hedge blog site declared of Abe's set speech: "Comedy hour comes early today courtesy of Japan's PM Shinzo Abe who just started speaking on the topic of 'reshaping the world' at Davos. Like we said: pure comedy."
Without going that far, it was striking that Abe in the main part of his set speech promised radical changes without saying how he would achieve them or giving the sums showing that the changes would indeed transform the Japanese economy.
He had a long list of changes about to happen, including electricity market liberalisation; radical agricultural reform allowing big corporates into the sector; empowering women in the workforce; labour market deregulation; health care reform to encourage big companies; removal of building restrictions, so that "the sky will be the limit"; creation of many "zero emissions towns"; and a promise that he would be "a drill bit strong enough to break through the solid rock of vested interests. No vested interests will be immune from my drill".
He sounded like a megalomaniac magician pulling brilliant rabbits out of his hat. He may be able to legislate changes, but it is not so easy to change society. Abe's way is also against the Japanese tradition of nem awashi, of laying the foundations for agreement.
If he wants to succeed in his goals, many of which are laudable, Abe should not listen to his own voice so much, but should listen to others and quietly try to persuade them of his good will.
That applies also to China.
Kevin Rafferty is a professor at the Institute for Academic Initiatives, Osaka University