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The visit to New Delhi next weekend of Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, as chief guest at the Republic Day celebrations, could prove to be the most important bilateral engagement for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh during his entire second term in office. No other summit meeting of the Indian PM during the tenure of the second United Progressive Alliance (UPA 2) government has yielded the kind of results that India and Japan expect from this visit of Prime Minister Abe. If the visit achieves its objectives, then the credit should go to both leaders for overruling their naysayers at home and moving forth boldly to write a new chapter in the bilateral relationship of Asia’s oldest democracies.
On his first visit to India as prime minister, during his previous tenure in office, Abe told the Indian Parliament: “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.” Abe could not pursue this initiative since he was unseated and replaced in quick succession by a clutch of relatively weak PMs in awe of China’s rising power.
Returning to power in December 2012, riding a wave of renewed national fervour, Abe sought to become Japan’s “Man of Destiny”. He understood the desire of his people to overcome a sense of national loss triggered, on one hand, by China overtaking Japan to become the world’s second biggest economy and, on the other, by the Fukushima nuclear tragedy.
Abe is no ordinary politician. He not only has political pedigree in Japan but also enjoys a special status as a member of the extended imperial family. Having learnt important lessons from his aborted first term, he inaugurated his second term by simultaneously seeking to revive Japan’s moribund economy and its sense of destiny as the Land of the Rising Sun.
Abe’s “three arrows” economic strategy, dubbed Abenomics and comprising of monetary policy, fiscal policy and structural economic reforms, has revived sentiment and spirit in Japan and about Japan. While critics continue to worry that only the first two arrows have hit their mark and the third arrow has not even been drawn, Abe’s slow and steady reform agenda has proved a wiser strategy, and is beginning to yield results.
Without taking his eye off the domestic economic agenda, Abe has become the most travelled prime minister of Japan. In reaching out to the world, without apologising for any of his political or foreign policy initiatives, Abe has let it be known that he would like the world to take Japan seriously. China’s sharp and critical response to Abe’s political and strategic initiatives is understandable, since he has deliberately sought to call China’s bluff by standing up to the bluster of the “assertive China” of 2012-13.
While reviving the economy has been Abe’s first priority and strengthening global partnerships has been his second objective, the agenda that he now hopes to pursue, with an eye on the history books, is the rewriting of Japan’s post-war constitution, aimed at conferring legitimacy to Japan’s defence forces. Abe wants to bring his country out of the long and ignominious shadow of the 20th century and make it an important pole of the emerging multipolar global order of the 21st century.
If there is one country in the world that ought to welcome Japan’s revival and its desire to be an active player in the new global balance of power, it is India. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was quick to recognise this when he told the Japanese Diet in December 2006: “I believe the time has come for our two ancient civilisations to build a strong contemporary relationship involving strategic and global partnership that will have a great significance for Asia and, I believe, for the world as a whole.”
Abe reciprocated that sentiment on his visit to India in August 2007, but India was slow to respond to Abe’s return in 2012, paralysed as it seemed to be by China’s “assertiveness” and its own loss of self-confidence. After a silence of over six months, Singh finally mustered the courage to speak eloquently about the historic and strategic significance of India-Japan relations for Asia and the world to a Tokyo audience in May 2013. In what many around the world read as a significant statement, he concluded by saying: “India’s relations with Japan are important not only for our economic development, but also because we see Japan as a natural and indispensable partner in our quest for stability and peace in the vast region in Asia that is washed by the Pacific and Indian Oceans.”
It is against this background that Japan has not only stepped up trade, aid and investments in India, but also the defence relationship. Abe has exerted pressure on Japanese business to give up their traditional risk-aversion to India and make long-term commitments. Equally, he has pushed for a long-term defence partnership. Abe’s arrival next week is preceded by the visit, last week, of his articulate defence minister, Itsunori Onodera. A senior Japanese military official recently told this writer that no post-war defence minister in Japan has travelled as much as Onodera has had to. “Wherever Mr Abe goes, Mr Onodera has to go!” he said, with a smile, pointing to the growing importance of defence diplomacy in Japan’s foreign relations.
China will continue to protest about Abe’s politics and postures, for obvious reasons, but so will many Western leaders who genuflect before China on account of its lucrative markets and view Japan as a competitor in the arms and technology markets. It is not surprising that Abe is not very popular in both the Chinese and Western media. While China and the West berate Abe, Indians must step back and try to understand him and Japan. The generation of Rabindranath Tagore and Swami Vivekananda did. Today’s India must also pay greater attention to Japan. It was wise of Singh to have reached out to Japan and to Abe last summer. It was clever of him to have invited him to Delhi this winter.
The writer is director for geo-economics and strategy, International Institute for Strategic Studies, and honorary senior fellow, Centre for Policy Research, Delhi