The incoming Japanese Prime Minister’s closeness to India and his vision of a ‘Broader Asia’ bode well for bilateral ties

The Pacific and the Indian Oceans are “now bringing about a dynamic coupling as seas of freedom and of prosperity. A ‘Broader Asia’ that broke away geographical boundaries 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.”

With those words Shinzo Abe, now re-elected Prime Minister of Japan, began a historic address to the Indian Parliament in August 2007. To an audience that had not yet absorbed the full import of the historic shift Mr. 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. Over the weekend he has also acquired a massive and historic verdict in favour of his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).

Early ties

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

Mr. Abe’s first meeting with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh took place a few months before Mr. 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 Mr. Abe and suggested I arrange an ‘informal’ meeting for him with Dr. Singh. Given his political pedigree and his proximity to the major-domo of Japan’s ruling LDP, Yoshiro Mori, Mr. Abe was seen by Mr. Jaishankar as certain to become Prime Minister one day. Brushing protocol aside Dr. Singh welcomed Mr. Abe for tea.

Months later Mr. Abe replaced Junichiro Koizumi and became, at 52, Japan’s youngest post-War Prime Minister in September 2006. He was also the first Japanese Prime Minister to be born after the war. In his altogether brief first term — lasting precisely a year from September 26, 2006 to September 26, 2007 — one of Mr. 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. He dubbed it ‘Broader Asia’.

Japan is now trying to “catch up to the reality of this ‘Broader Asia’,” he told Indian MPs. “Japan has undergone ‘The Discovery of India’, by which I mean we have 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”, the Pacific and the Indian Oceans — anticipating Hillary Clinton’s idea of the “Indo-Pacific” — Mr. 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.”

Invested in China

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

While there has been a revival of the idea of ‘strategic partnership’ since Mr. Fukuda’s time, growing economic and business interests have added ballast to the relationship. The Delhi-Mumbai Industrial and Rail Corridor, a lasting legacy of Dr. Singh, Mr. Koizumi and Mr. Abe, 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 seek more hospitable conditions in India to step up investment.

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

Mr. Abe’s vision of a ‘Broader Asia’ has not excited too many companies that have, through the 1990s and well into the early 2000s, invested heavily in China. It is 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.

Mr. Abe’s ‘Broader Asia’ approach imparts a strategic dimension to the India-Japan relationship and could be a gamechanger 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 area. 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 over a 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.

(Sanjaya Baru is Director for Geoeconomics and Strategy, International Institute for Strategic Studies; Hon. Fellow, Centre for Policy Research and former Media Advisor to Prime Minister of India)

This article has been corrected for an editing error.

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