A fortnightly column on the high politics of the Af-Pak region, the fulcrum of global power play in India’s neighbourhood.
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 for the US-Japan security treaty in 1960 and in laying the foundation for Japan’s industrial recovery after the war.
When he talks of India, Abe never forgets to mention Kishi’s gratitude to Jawaharlal Nehru for embracing Japan when it was a political pariah in Asia after the war. Kishi was the first prime minister of Japan to visit India in 1957 and was deeply touched by Nehru’s warm reception. When Kishi launched Japan’s programme for Overseas Development Assistance in the late 1950s, few in Asia were ready to accept it. Nehru’s India was the first to avail of the assistance. Abe also reminds Indian audiences that Kishi chose to visit India before travelling to Washington as prime minister. He was determined to signal to Washington that Japan was not alone in Asia and that it had a friend like India.
If Kishi understood the importance of India for Japan, Abe gets the credit for making India central to Japan’s geopolitics by articulating the concept of the “Indo-Pacific”. Contrary to the widespread perception that the “Indo-Pacific” is an American invention, it is Abe who first outlined the concept in the address to Parliament in 2007.
Borrowing the Mughal scholar-prince Dara Shikoh’s concept of the “confluence of two seas” that highlighted the convergence in the Sufi and Vedantic discourses, Abe argued that the Indian and Pacific Oceans are profoundly interconnected. He insisted that India and Japan, as leading “maritime democracies”, can and must play a decisive role in promoting peace and prosperity in this vast littoral. Despite the best intentions of the Indian and Japanese leaders in the 1950s, Delhi and Tokyo drifted apart from the mid-1960s on. Abe is now determined to reverse that. It is upto the UPA government to ensure that Abe’s visit will mark an important advance in bilateral relations.
The writer is a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, Delhi and a contributing editor
for ‘The Indian Express’