What new Japanese PM Abe means for India

Shinzo Abe and Manmohan Singh

By Dr Sanjaya Baru, Director for Geo-economics and Strategy

‘The Pacific and the Indian Oceans are now bringing about a dynamic coupling as seas of freedom and of prosperity’. With those words Shinzo Abe, now re-elected prime minister of Japan, launched into an historic address to the Indian Parliament in August 2007. A ‘broader Asia’, he said … ‘is now beginning to take on a distinct form. Our two countries have the ability – and the responsibility – to ensure that it broadens yet further and to nurture and enrich these seas to become seas of clearest transparence.’

To an audience that had not yet absorbed the full import of the historic shift that Abe was seeking in Japan’s relations with India, he added: ‘This is the message I wish to deliver directly today to the one billion people of India. That is why I stand before you now in the Central Hall of the highest chamber, to speak with you, the people’s representatives of India.’

Shinzo Abe is not just another prime minister in a country where prime ministers come by the dozen. He has pedigree and has acquired courage and a vision. And over the weekend he has also won a massive and historic verdict in favour of his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).

Abe is the grandson of Nobusuke Kishi, the first Japanese prime minister to visit independent India, in 1957. Abe recalls with affection the stories he had heard as a child about India, sitting on his grandfather’s lap.

Abe’s first meeting with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh took place a few months before Abe’s first term as prime minister in 2006. He was on a visit to India as Japan’s chief cabinet secretary, a position that would normally not have entitled him to a meeting with the Indian prime minister. Fortunately, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, the present ambassador to China who had served as chief of mission at the Indian Embassy in Tokyo in the 1990s, alerted me to the career potential of Abe and, as the then media adviser to the Indian prime minister, I suggested an ‘informal’ meeting for him with Dr Singh. Given his political pedigree and his proximity to the majordomo of Japan’s ruling LDP, Yoshiro Mori, Abe was seen by Jaishankar as certain to become prime minister one day. Brushing protocol aside, Dr Singh welcomed Abe for tea.

Months later, in September 2006, Abe replaced Junichiro Koizumi and became, at 52, Japan’s youngest post-war prime minister. He was also the first Japanese prime minister to be born after the war. In his brief first term – lasting precisely a year from 26 September 2006 to 26 September 2007 – one of Abe’s important foreign-policy initiatives was to visit India and set out a new vision of India–Japan relations through his address to the Indian Parliament. In it he minted the concept of a ‘broader Asia’.

Japan is now trying to ‘catch up to the reality of this “broader Asia”’, he told Indian MPs. ‘Japan has … rediscovered India as a partner that shares the same values and interests and also as a friend that will work alongside us to enrich the seas of freedom and prosperity, which will be open and transparent to all.’

Seeking a ‘confluence of the two seas of the Pacific and the Indian Oceans’ – anticipating Hillary Clinton’s idea of the ‘Indo-Pacific’ – Abe asked the Indian Parliament if it was not time for a value-based and an interests-based relationship between India and Japan. ‘This partnership is an association in which we share fundamental values such as freedom, democracy, and the respect for basic human rights as well as strategic interests. Japanese diplomacy is now promoting various concepts in a host of different areas so that a region called “the Arc of Freedom and Prosperity” will be formed along the outer rim of the Eurasian continent. The Strategic Global Partnership of Japan and India is pivotal for such pursuits to be successful.’

Wooing Japanese investment from China
The bold vision that Abe set out in his first term scared many in Japan who had invested heavily in Japanese–Chinese business relationships. They were worried that China would be provoked by Japan’s assertion of democracy as a factor in Asian diplomacy. Abe’s successor, Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda, quickly retreated from Abe’s bold perspective. Fukuda’s meeting with PM Singh in Singapore, on the sidelines of an ASEAN summit in November 2007, was a damp squib compared to the warm interaction with Abe. Fukuda was frosty and made no reference at all to Abe’s vision for the bilateral relationship.

While the idea of ‘strategic partnership’ has been revived since Fukuda’s period in office, growing economic and business interests have added ballast to the relationship. The Delhi–Mumbai industrial and rail corridor, a joint Singh, Koizumi and Abe undertaking, has since created a wider basis for closer ties.

However, Japanese investors still find India a difficult place to do business. Unlike their more risk-taking Korean counterparts, Japanese businesses need more hospitable conditions in India before they will step up investment.

At a recent conference on India–Japan relations in New Delhi, Japanese economists and officials reiterated their concerns about poor infrastructure, non-transparent legal and taxation systems and the sheer difficulty of living in and dealing with India. Though, as one Japanese commentator put it, at least India now has more Japanese restaurants!

Abe’s vision of a ‘broader Asia’ has not excited too many of the companies that invested heavily in China throughout the 1990s and well into the early 2000s. It was only when China overtook Japan to become the world’s second-biggest economy that Japanese businesses woke up to the rude reality of their increasing marginalisation in Asia.

Abe has promised to take a tough stance in Japan’s territorial disputes with China. In any case, his ‘broader Asia’ approach imparts a strategic dimension to the India–Japan relationship and could be a game-changer for Asia. One important area in which this new strategic vision will make a difference is in nuclear and defence policy. As the world’s only victim of nuclear attack Japan has long resisted normalising India’s nuclear-power status. More recently the Fukushima disaster fed into this latent anti-nuke sentiment in Japan, creating yet another barrier to India–Japan cooperation in this field. The Abe verdict, and the defeat of the anti-nuke political groups in these elections, should help Japan work with India in a vital field of energy and national security.

India and Japan are truly natural partners in Asia. Their ties have deep civilisational roots, an increasingly shared vision of a rising Asia and a strong commitment to democratic values. As Asia’s technologically most advanced economy, Japan can help India’s economic development. As a growing market of more than one billion, with the world’s largest pool of youth, India can offer Japan both markets and manpower. Shinzo Abe now has the mandate to make his vision a reality.

A version of this article originally appear in the Hindu.


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