One moment he sounded perfectly sane, alerting the world to the dangerous tensions that could potentially tear East Asia apart.
The next he appeared the very opposite, convincing a global audience there is no way to undo the knot he has tied. Or at least he is not in the mood to undo it.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s ravings in Davos showed he is desperate for a way out. Yet his behaviour leaves him no chance of finding one.
Abe is spearheading a Japanese lobbying spree that mixes self-explicatory rhetoric with China-bashing. Davos is his latest stop.
To make his case sensational, Abe borrowed from recent international discourse the analogy between present-day East Asia and the pre-World War I Europe. Close trading ties didn’t prevent Britain and Germany from an ultimate showdown, he warned.
Abe appeared sensible when reminding his audience that “if peace and stability were shaken in Asia, the knock-on effect for the entire world would be enormous”.
Yet his narrative turned delirious when it came to a prescription for peace.
He told Davos that China’s steady increase in military spending was the major source of instability in the region, ignoring Japan’s provocative “nationalisation” of the Diaoyu Islands (and denying there is even a dispute) and his high-profile pilgrimage to the Yasukuni Shrine worshipping 14 Class-A war convicts among the dead.
So, as always, he laid the burden of peacemaking on Chinese shoulders.
Abe was being modest in saying he doesn’t have a “clear and explicit roadmap”. He has unfolded one that is clear and explicit, which is for China to befriend an unrepentant Abe administration, and to pretend no territorial disputes exist – “without precondition”.
And he wanted trust. “Trust, not tension, is crucial for peace and prosperity in Asia,” he said, ignoring the fact he has not earned it.
He is the Japanese leader anxious to revamp the 1995 apology by then-prime minister Tomiichi Murayama for Japanese aggression.
He is the politician determined to rewrite the definition of “aggression” and whitewash Japan’s unseemly wartime history.
He is the government head who smears the Tokyo Trials and advocates that the 14 convicted Class-A war criminals were not guilty of anything.
He is the ruling party boss dedicated to scrapping the war-renouncing Article 9 of Japan’s post-war Constitution, and the mastermind of the Liberal Democratic Party’s recent removal of the pledge that Japan will “never wage a war”, despite his repeated calls for peace.
Trusting him may prove a mistake too costly to be affordable.
Abe is eager to erase public memories of his country as a vanquished World War II aggressor. He wants to present Japan as a “normal” country. Which is why he is dying to break the “box” that has confined his country for decades. Which is why he sought to depoliticise and legitimise his visit to the Yasukuni Shrine as “something quite natural for a leader of any country in the world”.
But until it can honestly face up to its calamitous past, Japan will remain different from any other country in the world.