Abe top globetrotter in Japan-is-back blitz

Bloomberg, AFP-JIJI

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

That’s what Prime Minister Shinzo Abe could have said as he woke up Monday in Port of Spain, the Caribbean country’s capital.

By Monday 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 traveled Japanese prime minister in history during a trip penciled 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 the Senkaku Islands and seeks to counter its neighbor’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 Center 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 has 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 communications. “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 OECD in Paris. He’s addressed the New York Stock Exchange and Chatham House policy institute in London, and in July became the first Japanese prime minister to speak in the Australian parliament.

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 with both countries, which harbor a deep-seated distrust of Japan over its past militarism.

“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 2013. 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, the People’s Daily reported.

The economic malaise that Abe inherited left the Japanese with what he called a “shrunken mindset” that destroyed confidence, prolonged deflation and sapped growth. He counts Nobel Prize-winning economist Robert Shiller, co-author of the 2009 book “Animal Spirits: How Human Psychology Drives the Economy and Why it Matters for Global Capitalism,” among the people he turned to for advice on how to rouse the Japanese from their economic lethargy.

Upon coming to power, he unveiled a policy of unprecedented monetary easing and economic stimulus, dubbed “Abenomics,” that aimed to re-inflate the economy and spur growth. He then went on the road to sell Japan to the rest of the world, and he is now poised to surpass Junichiro Koizumi as Japan’s most-traveled leader. Koizumi needed more than five years to post the previous record. Abe will do it in less than two.

Abe’s visit to Latin America began just as Xi wrapped up his tour, which included stops in Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela and Cuba. Xi signed more than 100 trade agreements on the trip.

The United States remains Latin America’s top trade partner, but gone are the days when Washington could take the region for granted as its backyard.

“In two or three more years, China will displace the European Union as the second most important trade partner of the region,” said Osvaldo Rosales, head of the international trade division a the Economic Commission for Latin America (ECLA), a United Nations agency.

“That probably explains Abe’s visit. For Japan and South Korea it is important to counterbalance the increased ties the region is establishing with China,” he said.

Abe used one of his first outings, a February 2013 speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, to lay out his vision for his premiership, contradicting the institute’s own analysts, and declaring in English that “Japan is back.”

While the jury may still be out on the ultimate success of Abenomics, the policy has helped drive six quarters of economic growth and made the Topix stock index the developed world’s best performer in 2013, returning more than 51 percent.

Abe has also 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 defense 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’s not a fluent speaker of the language.

In Canberra, he told the 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.”