“I am shocked and saddened beyond words at the tragic demise of one of my dearest friends, Shinzo Abe. He was a towering global statesman, an outstanding leader and a remarkable administrator. He dedicated his life to make Japan and the world a better place… Abe made an immense contribution to elevating India-Japan relations to the level of a Special Strategic and Global Partnership. Today, whole India mourns with Japan and we stand in solidarity with our Japanese brothers and sisters in this difficult moment,” Modi tweeted.
Abe was one of the most consequential leaders of Japan in its post-war history. He was Japan’s longest serving Prime Minister, staying in the post from 2006 to 2007, and then from 2012 to 2020. During his time in office, Abe was a great friend of India — a relationship that he invested personally in – and shared a special rapport with Modi.
When Abe announced his decision to step down in 2020, Modi had tweeted: “Pained to hear about your ill health, my dear friend… In recent years, with your wise leadership and personal commitment, the India-Japan partnership has become deeper and stronger than ever before. I wish and pray for your speedy recovery.”
During his first stint in 2006-07, Abe visited India and addressed Parliament. During his second stint, he visited India thrice — in January 2014, December 2015 and September 2017. No other Prime Minister of Japan has made so many visits to India. Abe was the first Japanese PM to be chief guest at the Republic Day parade in 2014. This reflected his commitment towards an India-Japan relationship – he was being hosted by a government that would be facing elections in May 2014.
While the foundation for a “Global Partnership between Japan and India” was laid in 2001, and annual bilateral summits were agreed upon in 2005, Abe accelerated the pace of ties since 2012.
In August 2007, when Abe visited India for the first time as PM, he delivered the now-famous “Confluence of the Two Seas” speech – laying the foundation for his concept of Indo-Pacific. This concept has now become mainstream and one of the main pillars of India-Japan ties.
Having visited Japan several times as Chief Minister of Gujarat, Modi, as Prime Minister, chose Japan for his first bilateral visit outside the neighbourhood, in September 2014. The Indo-Japan nuclear deal was still uncertain then, with Tokyo sensitive about a pact with a non-member country of the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty. Abe’s government convinced the anti-nuclear hawks in Japan to sign the agreement in 2016. The pact was key to India’s deals with the US and French nuclear firms, which were either owned by or had stakes in Japanese firms.
Modi and Abe agreed to upgrade the bilateral relationship to a “Special Strategic and Global Partnership” – a relationship which encompassed issues from civilian nuclear energy to maritime security, bullet trains to quality infrastructure, Act East policy to Indo-Pacific strategy.
While the security agreement was in place since 2008, under Abe, the two sides decided to have a foreign and defence ministers ‘ meeting (2+2), and started negotiations on the Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement — a military logistics support pact. In November 2019, the first foreign and defence ministers’ meeting was held in New Delhi. A pact for transfer of defence equipment and technology was also signed in 2015, an uncommon agreement for post-War Japan.
During Abe’s tenure, India and Japan came closer in the Indo-Pacific architecture. Abe had spelt out his vision of the “Confluence of the Two Seas” in his 2007 speech when the Quad was formed. In October 2017, as Chinese aggression grew in the Pacific, Indian Ocean, and India’s borders in Doklam, it was Abe’s Japan that mooted the idea of reviving the Quad. In November 2017, the grouping was revived as Indian, Japanese, Australia and US officials met in Manila on the sidelines of the East Asia summit.
Since 2013, Indian and Chinese soldiers have had four publicly-known border standoffs, and Abe stood with India through each of them. During the Doklam crisis and the current standoff, Japan made statements against China for changing the status quo.
During Abe’s visit in 2015, India decided to introduce the Shinkansen system (bullet train). Under Abe’s leadership, India and Japan also formed the Act East Forum and are engaged in projects in the Northeast, closely watched by China. The two countries also planned joint projects in Maldives and Sri Lanka among others to counter Beijing’s influence.
Abe was a valuable G-7 leader for India, focused on strategic, economic and political deliverables, and not getting distracted by India’s domestic developments – much to New Delhi’s comfort.
Having hosted Modi at his ancestral home in Yamanashi, Abe was feted at a roadshow in Ahmedabad. His planned visit to India in December 2020 in Guwahati, however, was cancelled due to the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act.
Quite befittingly, in January 2021, the Indian government announced the Padma Vibhushan, the country’s second-highest civilian award, for Abe.