KUALA LUMPUR – Prime Minister Shinzo Abe looked briefly into space on Friday evening in Kuala Lumpur as he concluded his three-nation tour of Asia and turned his attention to Monday’s crucial reshuffling of the Cabinet and his party’s leadership.
While the weeklong tour of Indonesia, India and Malaysia helped distance Abe from potential rivals and growing speculation about his favorite picks at home, it is unclear whether this helped his embattled administration or hurt it.
The only thing that surprised reporters about an interview Friday evening was the revelation that Abe already had an idea about the upcoming personnel decisions before leaving Tokyo Sunday but refused to drop any specific names.
Prospects appear to be diminishing that his decisions will have a strong, positive impact.
After his Liberal Democratic Party’s crushing defeat in the July 29 House of Councilors election, Abe has refrained from flaunting his credentials as a conservative hawk.
Before the Aug. 15 anniversary of the end of World War II, some pundits had been suggesting in magazine articles that Abe would visit the war-linked Yasukuni Shrine to bolster his image as a strong leader. But he did not.
In India, Abe appeared to be striving to avoid controversy at home and in the United States.
In response to Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s request for Japanese support for a U.S.-India civil nuclear deal, Abe only repeated that Tokyo was “carefully considering” its effects on the global nonproliferation regime.
Abe also had two rare opportunities to deliver policy speeches in Jakarta on Monday and New Delhi on Wednesday, using the speeches to promote his “value-oriented diplomacy.”
But he apparently failed to connect both times.
Abe received no applause in the Indian parliament when he referred to a stronger partnership between Japan and India as “an association in which we share fundamental values such as freedom, democracy and the respect for basic human rights as well as strategic interests.”
He also failed to get a reaction when describing his vision of establishing a “broader Asia” or an “arc of freedom and prosperity” throughout the Pacific and the Indian Ocean that would eventually incorporate the United States and Australia.
But Abe did receive warm applause when he pledged to cooperate in New Delhi’s project to build a 2,800-km freight railroad corridor linking Bombay, Delhi and Calcutta, and to establish an industrial corridor along the railroad.
In Jakarta, Abe said he was excited by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’s efforts to create a stronger community “while carrying the banner of the fundamental values that the people of Japan hold so dear.”
He also set out Tokyo’s commitment to help peace-building efforts in Southeast Asia — a commitment that Japanese officials said has “developed in a more proactive manner” Japan’s 1977 doctrine of building ties without becoming a military power.
But with little in the way of concrete measures except training, his vows drew little attention.
What appeared to impress the hosts far more than broadening bilateral ties to include security issues was the 200-member business mission that accompanied him. Business missions of that size rarely accompany Japanese prime ministers on overseas trips.
“In more than one sense, you are in business,” former Indonesian Foreign Minister Ali Alatas, who is a renowned Asian diplomat, told Abe after his policy speech in Jakarta, praising the business mission on behalf of the Indonesian Council on World Affairs think-thank that hosted a forum for the address.