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In inviting Shinzo Abe, the prime minister of Japan, to be the chief guest of this year’s Republic Day celebrations, Delhi has underlined the special importance it attaches to East Asia. Abe is the fourth East Asian leader to be part of the annual event in the last five years. The Thai prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, was the chief guest in 2012, and her predecessors were Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (2011) and Korean President Lee Myung-bak (2010).
In the 60 years before 2010, only four Southeast Asian leaders were serenaded in the celebrations to mark the founding of the republic — Singapore Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong (1994), the general secretary of the Vietnamese Communist Party, Nguyen Van Linh (1989), Prince Norodom Sihanouk of Cambodia (1963) and President Sukarno of Indonesia (1950). January 1958 saw an interesting chief guest: China’s defence minister, Marshal Ye Jianying. That was just before Sino-Indian relations took a turn for the worse and ended up in the 1962 war.
The frequent presence of East Asian leaders at Republic Day events is a reflection of the region’s growing weight in India’s economic and strategic calculus. After an intense focus on Asia in the 1950s and early 1960s, India turned its back on the region and was more preoccupied with the agenda of the non-aligned movement. It is with the Look East policy of the early 1990s that Asia returned to the centrestage of Indian foreign policy. For all the new importance of East Asia for India, a Japanese prime minister witnessing the military parade on Rajpath will draw considerable attention in the region. That it is Abe, whose military policies are being watched with much anger in Beijing and some wariness in Washington, might make this Republic Day somewhat special.
Abe has made political history in Japan by returning to power after he resigned from the top job in 2007. Abe will also be the first Japanese prime minister to visit India twice. Few Japanese leaders in the modern era have shown the kind of commitment that Abe has towards building a strategic partnership with India.
But Abe might be the first to contest that proposition. He might argue instead that he is merely retracing the footsteps of his maternal grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, who served as prime minister during 1957-60. Kishi is a controversial figure in Japan’s history. Demonised in China as a war criminal, Kishi played a key role in postwar Japan by pushing continued…