Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe used his moment in the spotlight Wednesday at the World Economic Forum to sound an alarm over what he sees as China's rising militancy and Japan's outdated defense posture.
In a speech opening the five-day annual gathering of global movers and shakers at the Swiss resort of Davos, Abe appeared to confirm suspicions building among his Asian neighbors that Tokyo will seek to ease the constitutional restraints placed on the vanquished World War II aggressor.
Japan and China in recent years have been rattling sabers over some uninhabited islands in the East China Sea and access to rich fishing and energy resources in the South China Sea.
The disputes have intensified since Beijing unilaterally asserted its sovereignty over the islands it calls the Diaoyu by establishing an air defense identification zone over the disputed territory in November. Abe followed with a provocative visit last month to a Tokyo shrine containing the remains of Japanese war criminals.
Japanese military and commercial aircraft have defied China's demand that any planes entering the air zone inform aviation authorities in Beijing, and the daily violations of airspace over what Tokyo claims as the Senkaku islands have ratcheted up tensions in the strategic East Asian sea lanes. Analysts fear an accident or misjudgment could trigger an armed confrontation between Asia's biggest economies.
Abe's speech opening the Davos forum began with an account of his fiscal policies, dubbed Abenomics in the financial world. But his veiled remarks clearly aimed at China put the tense battle between the Asian neighbors front and center at the lavish Swiss confab.
"We must restrain military expansion in Asia ... which otherwise could go unchecked," Abe warned the global business and political delegates without specifically naming China. "If peace and stability were shaken in Asia, the knock-on effect for the entire world would be enormous."
Obviously alluding to Beijing's impressive economic performance over the last decade, Abe warned that "the dividend of growth in Asia must not be wasted on military expansion."
Abe also called for making military budgets "completely transparent," another dig at China, which doesn't disclose details of its military spending but is known to have significantly upped investment in air and sea defense assets during its growth spree.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi isn't expected at Davos until Friday. But a Chinese academic taking part on another Davos panel, Wu Xinbo, responded to Abe's criticism by calling him a "troublemaker," the Reuters news agency reported.
Wu said Abe's December visit to the Yasukuni shrine had fanned anti-Japanese sentiment in China. He also likened Abe to North Korea's erratic leader, without naming names. Pyongyang's young dictator, Kim Jong Un, has ignited tensions in Asia with his restart of nuclear energy and weapons production and with political purges that reportedly have sent scores to their deaths by firing squad in public executions.
"Political relations between our two countries will remain very cool, even frozen for the remaining years of Abe in Japan," Wu, a professor of international studies at Fudan University, was quoted by Reuters as saying.
Abe told Agence France-Presse that his visit to the shrine wasn't meant to offend anyone, and that "praying for the souls of the departed" should be seen as a natural gesture for a leader.With the Davos address and other recent observations, Abe is laying the groundwork "to shake up the postwar regime," the Japan Times wrote.
Japan's Constitution restricts the use of force to very limited defensive circumstances and constrains arms acquisition, measures imposed after World War II to prevent the country from ever again imperiling peace and security in Asia.
Abe wants those strictures eased to recognize Japan's right to "collective self-defense," whereby it could assist in the response to an aggressor imperiling an ally even if the hostilities didn't directly target Japan, the newspaper said, quoting the prime minister's comments during an interview in Tokyo before his departure for Europe.
"Someone has to decide" the defense posture needed for today's security situation, Abe told Japanese television on Sunday, "because Japan cannot be locked inside a box created 40 or 50 years ago."