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Abe heads to Africa to boost Japan's profile

TOKYO -- Japan's leader departed for a weeklong African tour Thursday, keeping up a busy travel schedule designed to restore Japan's global influence in the face of China's rise, as well as help Japanese companies win business overseas.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who will make a short visit to the Mideast state of Oman before heading to the Ivory Coast, Mozambique and Ethiopia, is taking a different approach to foreign policy than his immediate predecessors, visiting a wider range of countries to try to broaden Japan's diplomatic reach.

Publicly, Japanese officials deny that Abe's travels have anything to do with China. “Wherever he goes, Prime Minister Abe is asked if he is there to compete against China, but that's not our intention at all,” Hiroshige Seko, a deputy chief cabinet secretary, said in an interview Thursday. “As far as the African nations are concerned, they are important regardless of China.”

But the unofficial backdrop is China's rise and the relative decline of a once ascendant Japan during two decades of economic stagnation. Abe wants to restore confidence in Japan, both at home and abroad. He often gives speeches and high-profile media interviews when he travels, for example promoting his “Abenomics” growth policies to bankers in London and New York.

It's partly about outflanking China, but also about gaining more global respect for Japan and renewing ties with natural allies in Southeast Asia, India and the Middle East, said Kent Calder, the director of the Reischauer Center for East Asian Studies at Johns Hopkins University.

A series of revolving-door prime ministers who served brief terms have hurt Japan's diplomacy, and Seko said Abe feels responsible because it started with him during an earlier stint as leader in 2006-07. “What Prime Minister Abe is trying to do is to regain what Japan has lost over the past few years,” he said.

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Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, center, and his wife Akie wave as they depart for Africa at Haneda Airport in Tokyo on Thursday, Jan. 9. Abe is heading to Africa, keeping up a busy overseas travel schedule designed to boost Japan's global profile in the face of China's rise. (AP)

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