While Japan and South Korea held elaborate nights to fete the participants, China, in contrast, was noticeably absent.
SINGAPORE: As South Korean President Park Geun Hye delivered her address at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, she would have noticed an unexpected figure in the audience – none other than Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, seated in the front of the hall.
Abe listened politely as Park spelt out her vision of South Korea as a creative economy, driven by entrepreneurs and innovation.
“The future will be defined by a creative divide,” she said.
“Creativity does not degrade the environment; it unlocks opportunities for sustainable growth. It is inherent to all people and therefore holds promise for inclusive growth.”
A little later in the afternoon, it was Abe’s turn to take to the same podium to address a packed Congress Hall in the Swiss alpine resort where the annual forum is held.
Like Park, he too chose to deliver his speech in English, struggling at times as he outlined his plans to push forward on the next phase of his Abenomics reforms.
He pledged to cut corporate tax, raise the consumption tax, abolish subsidies for rice production and open up Japanese markets.
“It is not twilight but a new dawn that is breaking over Japan,” he declared.
“I am willing to act like a drill bit strong enough to break vested interests. Over the next two years, no vested interests will remain immune from my drill.”
These reforms would help make Japan a vibrant country once again, allowing it to play its part in upholding the peace in the region, based on the rule of law, he said.
Without naming anyone, he made an appeal for Asian countries to curb military spending and boost transparency in defence budgets, as well as for new crisis management mechanisms to be put in place.
“If peace and stability are shaken in Asia, the knock-on effects will be felt around the world,” he warned.
No doubt many in the audience would agree, but they might also have figured that Abe had hardly helped his cause by his recent controversial visit to the Yasukuni shrine, which so upset China and South Korea that they have refused to deal with him.
Given the deep North-East Asian chill, it was no surprise that WEF executive chairman Klaus Schwab commended Abe for attending Park’s talk, in a display of “the best Davos spirit”.
But he also pressed the Japanese leader on his shrine visit, wondering how this helped create the atmosphere for the sort of Asian dialogue Abe said he was seeking.
The prime minister’s response was a well-rehearsed one about the memorial being dedicated to all the war dead of the world, not only Japanese soldiers, and that he had offered prayers that there might be no more wars.
“Japan has sworn an oath never again to wage war,” he said.
“We have never stopped, and continue to be, wishing for the world to be at peace. It is my hope that through Abenomics, we can create a vibrant Japan that can bring peace and prosperity to the region and the world.”
He repeated his call for a summit with his Chinese and South Korean counterparts, saying that the door “was always open” as far as he was concerned.
Not everyone in the audience was convinced, but there was no doubting the determination of the Japanese and South Koreans to make their cases forcefully to this influential crowd.
Both countries held elaborate Japan and Korea nights to fete participants, with the South Koreans even flying in well-loved performer Psy for their much-talked-about event.
China, in contrast, has been noticeably absent. While it did feature in several panels discussing its rise and place in the world, there was a shortage of high-profile Chinese leaders to press their case.
Perhaps the timing of the conference was too close to the Chinese New Year celebrations next week, one delegate ventured, after Schwab revealed that holding this year’s event a little earlier in January had meant that it did not clash with the opening of Parliament in Japan.
That made it possible for Abe to attend.
Of course, China might decide, as is its prerogative, that it does not wish to play the Davos game, wooing the global elite that attends what has been dubbed the “conclave of the world’s capitalists”.
After all, given the size and significance of its economy, it might well wonder why the world’s elite should not gather at a hillside resort in Dalian, rather than Davos, and engage it on its own terms.
Yet, some would see that as a troubling sign of a more self-absorbed China, ill at ease with the modern world and seeking to reshape it to its liking.
How much better it would be if one day before long, Park might look out as she addressed her audience to see China’s President Xi Jinping with Abe seated next to him, engaging in a friendly exchange in the best Davos spirit.
Or is that unthinkable?