Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (centre) greets a participant during a break in sessions on the opening day of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, on Wednesday. Photo: Bloomberg

JAPANESE Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, embroiled in a diplomatic spat with China, took centre stage at Davos yesterday as 2 500 political and business leaders kicked off their annual brainstorming and networking blitz.

With landmark Syrian peace talks opening just down the road and both Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu due to drop into the Swiss Alpine resort today, the volatile situation in the Middle East will weigh heavily on this year’s meeting of the World Economic Forum.

But the focus of the first full day reflected a more traditional business agenda with participants debating issues including the relationship between Africa’s economic and population growth, and the fallout from Edward Snowden’s revelations about the extent of snooping by the US and other governments on internet users across the globe.

Japan’s premier was due to deliver a keynote address that would offer an update on the progress of “Abenomics”, his ambitious bid to end two decades of deflation.

Abe’s presence in Davos is part of an ongoing drive to raise his international profile as Japan seeks to win a global “soft diplomacy” battle for hearts and minds in a dispute with Beijing over disputed islands in the East China Sea.

Tensions have come precariously close to boiling over on several occasions over the past couple of years and were reignited last month when Abe visited the Yasukuni shrine, which honours Japan’s war dead, including convicted war criminals.

The spat has gone global, with Japanese and Chinese envoys in London indulging in a Harry Potter-themed row in the letters pages of the British newspapers, and a top Chinese diplomat in Africa branding Abe a “troublemaker” following his recent influence-building tour of the continent.

Japanese diplomats believe Abe has the charisma to help sway international opinion in his favour but acknowledge he needs to become better known on the global stage – which is where high-profile appearances like this visit come in. In terms of headlines, however, it is unlikely that Abe will be able to compete with Rouhani.

The most eagerly awaited guest at this year’s forum is making the trip in a bid to accelerate the reintegration of his sanctions-ravaged country into the world economy on the back of his moves to rebuild relations with the West.

In a reflection of the unique nature of Davos, Netanyahu – Iran’s fiercest critic – is in town today, the day that Rouhani is due to deliver his speech on “Iran and the World”.

On the economic front, a major theme of the week is likely to be the impact of US monetary policy tightening on emerging economies, which are feeling the pinch of a slowdown in capital flows generated by quantitative easing.

Among African leaders set to appear are Rwandan President Paul Kagame and Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

As ever, there will be two sides to Davos: the public debates and the not-so-public deals – business and political – done over champagne, cocktails and canapes on the sidelines of the talk-fest. – Sapa-AFP