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Japan PM seeks limelight as global elite gathers in Davos

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, currently embroiled in a diplomatic spat with China, takes centre stage at Davos Wednesday as 2,500 political and business leaders kick off their annual brainstorming 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 later in the week, the volatile situation in the Middle East will weigh heavily on this year's World Economic Forum.

But the focus of the first full day reflects 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 the United States and other governments' snooping on Internet users across the globe.

Japan's premier is to deliver a keynote address that will offer an update on the progress of "Abenomics", his ambitious bid to end two decades of deflation, and may also touch on current tensions with China.

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 last 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 region.

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 his sanctions-ravaged country's reintegration into the world economy on the back of his moves to rebuild relations with the West.

US officials have not ruled out the possibility of what would be a highly symbolic meeting between Rouhani and US Secretary of State John Kerry, who is due to drop in by helicopter on Friday after overseeing the start of the Syrian peace talks.

In a reflection of the unique nature of Davos, Netanyahu -- Iran's fiercest critic -- is also in town on Thursday, the same day that Rouhani is due to deliver his speech on "Iran and the World".

It would mean tearing up the diplomatic script of the last decade, but a meeting of the arch-enemies would not be the first time that the cosy Alpine atmosphere has given rise to an unexpected encounter.

'Champagne, cocktails and canapes'

On the economic front, one of the major themes of the week is expected to be the impact of an anticipated tightening of US monetary policy on emerging economies, which are already feeling the pinch of a slowdown in the flow of capital generated by quantitative easing.

Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff, currently battling rampant inflation and a slowing economy, is among those who will address an issue that casts a shadow over the generally brighter global economic outlook highlighted by the International Monetary Fund this week. The IMF on Tuesday raised its forecast for global economic growth this year from 3.6 to 3.7 percent.

Among African leaders set to appear are Rwandan President Paul Kagame and Davos regular Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Liberia's president.

As usual, a slew of central bankers and top economic policymakers will make the trek up the mountain, with the European Central Bank President Mario Draghi set to forecast the state of the economy with Mark Carney, the Canadian now running the Bank of England.

On the business side, Yahoo! Chief Executive Marissa Mayer will feature prominently as will Facebook number two Sheryl Sandberg.

Davos would not be Davos without the presence of celebs and rockers adding some sparkle and providing a counterbalance to the weighty topics being thrashed out in the conference halls.

Hollywood heartthrob Matt Damon was presented with an award at Tuesday's opening ceremony and U2's campaigning frontman Bono and erstwhile US comedy star Goldie Hawn are also expected to put in appearances.

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

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/140121/japan-pm-seeks-limelight-global-elite-gathers-davos