Thursday, May 1, 2014

Abe steps up his salesmanship on foreign odyssey

Shinzo Abe’s harshest detractors call him a jingoist and a xenophobe, but if the Japanese prime minister dislikes foreigners you would not know it from his travel schedule.

Mr Abe, who has just kicked off a six-country tour of Europe, has accumulated many more air miles than his recent predecessors. Since taking office in December 2012, he has spent nearly a fifth of his time the road – 87 days out of 500, if the latest sojourn is included – bringing his “Japan is back” message to three dozen countries, from Mongolia to Argentina.

The pace of travel is especially impressive for a man with a chronic heath problem – ulcerative colitis – that helped to cut short a previous term in office in 2007. Then, a punishing trip through a southeast Asia and India was blamed for exacerbating the intestinal condition and forcing him to quit. New medicines and, perhaps, a new sense of mission have buoyed him this time around.

Travel is tricky for any Japanese prime minister, since parliamentary rules require premiers to spend more time debating bills than their counterparts in other countries do. Thus, Mr Abe has had to squeeze a trip into virtually every legislative break. His current tour coincides with Japan’s Golden Week holidays, when most of his countrymen are relaxing away from their jobs.

Why the wanderlust? The usual cynic’s explanation – a desire to escape problems at home – seems unlikely, since Mr Abe remains popular. His ratings have slipped from the 70-odd per cent of a year ago, but more than half of Japanese voters still say that he is doing a good job.

Rather than escapism, Mr Abe has been engaged in dogged salesmanship – pitching his vision of reinvigorated Japanese foreign and economic policy to the world and, in particular, to investors. Initially it did the trick: hopes for a decisive exit from two decades of deflation pushed Tokyo share prices up by half in 2013.

Now, though, Mr Abe needs to work harder to charm his foreign audiences. On the economy, his stimulus-heavy approach has worked well by many measures: consumer prices are creeping up, corporate profits have surged and unemployment is at a six-year low. But there are suspicions – widespread and increasingly hardening – that Mr Abe will not deliver the difficult structural changes that most believe are needed to sustain the turnround.

The Nikkei’s charge has given way to a retreat this year and Mr Abe’s promise to make Japan “the best place in the world to do business” looks hollow.

One way to counter this impression would be with a breakthrough on trade. On his European trip, Mr Abe is to discuss Japan-EU trade talks with leaders of the UK, Germany, France and elsewhere.

But higher priority negotiations with the US – bilateral talks that are crucial to sealing a larger 12-nation Pacific Rim pact – remain stuck, mostly due to Japan’s desire to retain import tariffs on farm products. Failure here could sap what is left of the belief that Mr Abe can, in his own words, “operate the drill that will break through the rock of vested interests”.

On broader strategic issues, Mr Abe’s travels tell the story of his ambitions as well as his failures. His list of destinations is heavy on countries that are crucial to supplying Japan with natural resources, such as Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Mozambique. Last year he jetted from St Petersburg, where he was attending a G20 summit, to Buenos Aires, to deliver a personal plea for Tokyo’s 2020 Olympic bid, a trip that may have helped seal the city’s win.

He has visited every country in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, as well as Australia and India – all countries that, like Japan, are keeping a wary eye on China’s rise. There have been two trips to the US, reciprocated last week by Barack Obama’s visit to Tokyo, an alliance-strengthening exercise that was also aimed at Beijing.

But China itself has not been on Mr Abe’s itinerary, in spite of his offers to meet its leaders to discuss territorial disputes and other irritants. Nor, more surprisingly, has he managed an invitation from South Korea, a fellow democracy and US ally.

Chinese and South Korean leaders have often found it convenient to bash Japan, the former colonial tormentor, but Mr Abe’s own actions have not helped him. His visit in December to the Yasukuni shrine, where Japan’s wartime leaders are honoured, and revisionist comments by members of his conservative circle have driven the wedge in deeper. Mr Abe’s European itinerary contains a number of stops at war-related monuments – a handy opportunity to show sorrow at war generally, without having to confront the particulars of Asia’s past.

Even outside the region, former fans of Mr Abe increasingly think of him as a provocative nationalist first, economic reformer second – if at all. It will take more than pacifying gestures in faraway capitals to win them back.

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