KUALA LUMPUR Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe moved to woo back his conservative supporters on an Asian tour this week, snubbing China and paying tribute to an Indian figure revered by Japanese nationalists.
Abe needs all the backing he can get after last month's defeat in upper house elections that took away the ruling bloc's majority, and he is set to reshuffle the cabinet on Monday hoping to turn fortunes around.
"Abe thinks that he's good at diplomacy, so he's eager to show his color in diplomacy," said political analyst Atsuo Ito.
In a speech to the Indian parliament, Abe called for a new partnership of democracies in a "broader Asia", that would include India, United States and Australia, but made no mention of China, a framework seen as reining in Beijing's growing clout.
Tokyo and New Delhi also agreed to have the Japanese navy participate, for the first time, in U.S.-India joint exercises to be held in the Bay of Bengal in September.
"Abe's visit to India had strategic implications," said Takehiko Yamamoto, political science professor at Tokyo's Waseda University, adding that Japan was playing its role in Washington's "soft containment" of China.
But Abe said he did not see a rising China as a threat.
"Rather, it is an opportunity for Japan and the world," he told a news conference wrapping up his week-long tour of Indonesia, India and Malaysia.
"Having said that, I would like China to play a responsible role in the region."
While Abe has improved ties with China, he has long been known for his tough talk towards Beijing, and Japanese media said he may tap a prominent conservative anti-China commentator for a cabinet position in the upcoming reshuffle.
DEBATE OVER WARTIME PAST
The 52-year-old Abe, Japan's first prime minister to be born after World War Two, took office 11 months ago pledging to rewrite the country's U.S.-drafted pacifist constitution and revive traditional Japanese values and nurture patriotism.
He surprised critics by making a fence-mending trip to Beijing and Seoul weeks after taking office and he has also stayed away from visiting Yasukuni Shrine, seen by the Asian neighbors as a symbol of Japan's past militarism.
But on Thursday, Abe met in Kolkata the son of an Indian judge who opposed punishing Japanese war criminals convicted by an Allied tribunal, charging that it was victors' justice.
Radhabinod Pal also said there was overwhelming evidence of atrocities committed by the Japanese military, but he is a hero for Japanese nationalists and a monument dedicated to him even stands on the grounds of Yasukuni, where the convicted war criminals are honored along with Japan's war dead.
An editorial last week in Chosun Ilbo, South Korea's biggest newspaper, said Abe's meeting with the judge's son, Prasanta Pal, was aimed at "claiming innocence" for the war criminals.
At the meeting, Pal showed Abe a picture of his father with Abe's grandfather, former prime minister Nobusuke Kishi, a great admirer of the judge who was listed as a war criminal but never convicted.
One of Abe's close aides traveling with him said the Asian tour boosted the leader's profile as a statesman.
But political analyst Ito said Abe's idea of an alliance among those who share "basic values" was a naive idea in the face of realpolitik, based on economic and other pragmatic interests.
In one such sign, India's Foreign Secretary Shiv Shankar Menon warned this week against a "zero sum game" with China -- likely to soon be New Delhi's biggest trade partner -- saying that ties with Japan could not come at the cost of China.