Coming full circle: Shinzo Abe in India

A “normal” Japan that takes on greater security responsibilities in Asia, coupled with its new-found confidence under Mr. Abe, bodes well for India and the region.

Updated - December 04, 2021 11:27 pm IST

Published - January 25, 2014 12:29 am IST

Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe, gestures as he speaks at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2014. Leaders gathered in the Swiss ski resort of Davos have made it a top priority to push to reshape the global economy and cut global warming by shifting to cleaner energy sources. (AP Photo/Michel Euler)

Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe, gestures as he speaks at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2014. Leaders gathered in the Swiss ski resort of Davos have made it a top priority to push to reshape the global economy and cut global warming by shifting to cleaner energy sources. (AP Photo/Michel Euler)

When former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi travelled to New Delhi in 2005, he was the first Japanese leader to visit India in more than half a decade. His visit took place at a time when Tokyo appeared somewhat wary towards India’s overtures for building closer defence ties. Fast forward a decade, and the relationship has appeared to have come full circle. It is now Tokyo that appears eager to broaden the security relationship with India, even pushing to sell its home-grown amphibious aircraft.

Mr. Koizumi’s visit has since come to be seen as a turning point. The past decade has seen an unprecedented level of engagement between both countries, underlined by regular annual summit meetings between their Prime Ministers, a rare occurrence in India’s diplomacy with most countries. This intensive engagement has persisted despite the many changes of government in Tokyo over the past nine years — as many as four different Prime Ministers have visited India during this time.

While this has reflected the consensus across the political spectrum in Japan for pursuing closer ties with India, no leader has perhaps been as vocal an advocate for the relationship as current Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Mr. Abe’s ties with India stretch back over two generations. His grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, who visited India as Prime Minister in 1957, had deeply personal reasons to be grateful to India, particularly for its support to Japan during its traumatic and isolated post-war years.

During the Second World War, Kishi served as a senior official in the puppet Manchukuo government established in northeastern China following the Japanese occupation. In charge of its industrial development, he presided over a regime that oversaw widespread and notorious exploitation and abuse of the local labour force. Charged with war crimes — he is still regarded in China as a Class-A War Criminal — Kishi was subsequently cleared of the charges and went on to become Prime Minister. India extended a warm welcome to Kishi in 1957 at a time when the country was still largely isolated by its neighbours. Kishi made clear his gratitude by making India the first recipient of Japanese Official Development Assistance (ODA).

Mr. Abe will certainly be mindful of this history when he arrives in New Delhi this weekend on a visit which will also see him preside over the Republic Day parade as chief guest. When he visited India as Prime Minister in 2007, Mr. Abe met with the son of Indian jurist Justice Radhabinod Pal, the only member of the post-war International Military Tribunal for the Far East, who cast a dissenting vote against punishing Japanese officials for war crimes. Among the 50 suspects charged with war crimes was Mr. Abe’s grandfather, Kishi. Pal presented a lengthy dissenting opinion questioning the highly politicised tribunal’s legitimacy and motivations, although he acknowledged the atrocities committed by Japanese forces.

Mr. Abe has made clear that his government is looking to reinvigorate the relationship with India, which has been framed by his aides as a central pillar to his government’s foreign policy objectives for the region. His first term as Prime Minister, in 2007, ended in just one year after a series of missteps left him a widely unpopular leader.

Mr. Abe was given a second chance in December 2012, when his Liberal Democratic Party won a resounding victory amid public dissatisfaction with a series of governments that failed to revive a stagnating economy. Mr. Abe, in his second innings, wisely made the economy his first priority, shelving, at least for much of his first year in office, his more controversial political agenda. Mr. Abe turned to Koichi Hamada, a professor at Yale University, in crafting a bold and ambitious revival plan, announcing “three arrows” to save the economy.

Dubbed “Abenomics”, the three arrows involved massive monetary easing, an expansionary fiscal policy and a plan for long-term growth. The first two arrows had largely succeeded in hitting their target, Mr. Hamada wrote in a recent essay, evinced by a soaring stock market which has recorded a 40 per cent gain over the past year. The Japanese currency has also fallen 20 per cent against the dollar, boosting Japanese businesses by making their exports competitive again.

There is an unmistakeable return in confidence for beleaguered Japanese industry and enterprise, a resurgence that is good news for India. Japanese investments have continued to play a crucial role in building India’s infrastructure, including the Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor. Japanese assistance towards a Chennai-Bangalore high-speed rail project is expected to figure during Mr. Abe’s visit. Trade between both countries reached $ 18.6 billion last year. According to the Japanese government’s figures, investment into India grew from 15 billion Yen ($ 145 million) in 2004 to 543 billion ($ 5.25 billion) in 2008. In 2011, the figure stood at 181 billion ($ 1.75 billion). Cumulative development assistance committed to India, according to government figures, has reached 3800 billion Yen ($ 36.7 billion).

On the foreign policy front, however, Mr. Abe’s record has been mixed so far. Mr. Abe has for long stated his ambition of making Japan “a normal country” and turning the page on elements of the post-war imposed pacifist Constitution that limits the development of the military. His project has taken on all the more urgency in the wake of renewed tensions with China over the disputed Senkaku or Diaoyu East China Sea islands and the rapidly growing strength of the Chinese military.

A “normal” Japan that takes on greater security responsibilities in Asia, coupled with its new-found resurgence and confidence under Mr. Abe, no doubt bodes well for India and the region. Only this month, both sides agreed to enhance defence consultations, particularly on the issue of maritime security, when Japanese Defence Minister Itsunori Onodera visited New Delhi.

Mr. Abe’s government has, on the other hand, risked undermining its regional promise as tensions with China and South Korea have worsened on the sensitive question of wartime history. Mr. Abe became the first Japanese leader in seven years to visit the Yasukuni Shrine, a memorial for the civilians who lost their lives in the war that also enshrines 14 Class-A war criminals.

The visit understandably angered China and South Korea, who view the shrine as glorifying the brutalities of Japanese militarism. The Yasukuni visit even brought criticism for Mr. Abe at home.

Mr. Abe will be the fourth Asian leader to be received as the Chief Guest at the Republic Day parade in the last five years, following leaders from South Korea, Indonesia and Thailand. The trend — albeit partly a result of scheduling — highlights India’s increased attention towards deepening its engagement with the region. It does, however, remain to be seen how India navigates the increasingly complex tensions that have cast a cloud on East Asia, and left unclear what impact a resurgent Japan under Shinzo Abe will ultimately leave on the region.

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