Globetrotting Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe seeks to outdo Chinese diplomacy

Shinzo Abe, who's currently touring Caribbean countries and Latin America, will soon become most-travelled Japanese prime minister ever

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 29 July, 2014, 10:09pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 30 July, 2014, 2:18pm

If it's Monday, it must be Trinidad and Tobago.

That's what Prime Minister Shinzo Abe could have said as he woke up in Port of Spain, the Caribbean country's capital. By this time next week Abe will have visited 47 nations since taking office in 2012, after an itinerary encompassing six Latin American and Caribbean cities in nine days.

Spanning the globe to sell the story that the nation marred by two decades of deflation and economic stagnation is now back on the upswing, Abe will become the most-travelled Japanese prime minister in history on a trip pencilled in for South Asia in the coming weeks.

The effort underscores his government's commitment to build international support as Japan wrangles with China over territorial disputes near home and seeks to counter its neighbour's growing global influence.

"He's inspired by how very active China has been in diversifying its diplomatic partners," said Kerry Brown, executive director of the China Studies Centre at the University of Sydney. "Japan's had too low a profile for too long, despite the fact that Japan is one of the world's major economies."

Abe said at a July 24 conference in Tokyo that "he has worked up a sweat" on his travels, as he touts the initial success of his economic policies and peddles everything from Japanese nuclear technology in Turkey to submarines in Australia. His salesmanship had led to a tripling of infrastructure orders in 2013 from the previous year, he said at the event.

"Japan's foreign policy was largely insolvent" before Abe came to power, said Tomohiko Taniguchi, a former journalist whom Abe tapped as a special adviser on strategic communication. "Abe is trying to show the rest of the world that Japan is still here and remains a power that you can count on."

The prime minister's campaign to influence global thought-leaders has featured keynote speeches at international venues, including the World Economic Forum in Davos and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development in Paris.

Despite visiting a dozen Asian countries at least once, there are two key stamps missing on his passport recently - South Korea and China. Japan is embroiled in disputes over territory in the East China Sea with both countries, which harbour a deep-seated distrust of Japan over its past militarism in Asia.

"Abe's doing something a little bit different in seeking further distant relations, but he's obviously having quite a big problem creating better quality relations with the countries around him," Taniguchi said.

South Korean President Park Geun-hye and Chinese President Xi Jinping have called on Japan to do more to atone for its wartime past before they will agree to bilateral summits with Abe.

Xi, another globetrotter with more than two dozen country visits since the start of last year, was in Seoul in July, after hosting Park in June last year. The two have built a strong rapport. Xi, who has referred to Park as "an old friend", sent her a handwritten greeting for her 62nd birthday in February, People's Daily reported.

Abe has used his sojourns to offer up Japan as a foil to China's growing assertiveness in the East and South China seas. In May, Abe was the keynote speaker at the Shangri-La Dialogue security forum of defence officials in Singapore where he offered Japan's "utmost support'' to Southeast Asian nations to ensure the security of their seas and skies, a speech China denounced as provocative.

Abe has made great efforts to give some keynote addresses in English, though he is not a fluent speaker of the language.

He told the Australian parliament on July 8 that "Japan and Australia have deepened our economic ties. We will now join up in a scrum, just like in rugby, to nurture a regional and world order and to safeguard peace".