By Dr. D.K. Giri
On 28th August, Shinzo Abe, the longest-serving Prime Minister of Japan, relinquished office on health grounds. He had resigned earlier in 2007 on similar grounds; apparently the illness resurfaced. Someone else from the ruling Liberal Democratic party will take over. But the question is whether the relations between India and Japan that were rocking between Narendra Modi and Shinzo Abe will remain the same.
To start with the sudden resignation of Abe is good news for imperialist China and bad for India. As the border conflict between India and China rages, Abe has stood openly behind New Delhi. Since 2013, Indian and Chinese soldiers had four stand offs at the border – April 2013, September 2014, June-August, 2017 and the current one since May 2020. Japan has sided with India publically on these stand offs; released statements against China in the last two stand offs, Doklam and Eastern Laddakh.
Japan, apart from economic competition with China, is worried about China’s possible ingress in to Senkaku Island. Beijing’s expansionist tendency will keep Japan and India together in Quad or bilaterally. That Damocles’ sword is hanging over several countries including Japan. India, of course, is facing the menace of China’s greed for land.
Abe came from rich political lineage, his grandfather and an uncle were Prime Ministers and father was Cabinet Minister before him. He revived Japan’s military status and was standing up to China. He was actively engaged in international affairs normalising relations with United States and European Unions and taking impressive initiatives in India Pacific region including the formation of Quad.
To note the deepening of Japan-India ties Abe was singularly responsible for driving it. He was the first Japanese PM to be India’s Chief Guest at its Republic Day function in 2014, an important diplomatic act in view of India’s relations with the country represented, on this particular grand occasion. Abe also is known for making record number of visits to India during his premiership. It should also be noted that Abe had warm and cordial relations with both Prime Ministers of UPA as well as NDA governments.
Obviously, Narendra Modi and Shinzo Abe had a remarkable interpersonal equation. Modi had visited Japan as Gujarat CM and made his maiden visit as the Prime Minister in 2014. In bilateral relations between countries the personal chemistry between leaders plays a big contributory role. Modi has excelled in warming up to quite a few heads of governments – Benjamin Netanyahu, Donald Trump, Shinzo Abe being the prominent ones. Unfortunately the last Summit meeting between Abe and Modi scheduled in Assam could not take place due to turmoil in the State following the application of NRC. This was a lesson New Delhi must learn, i.e. peace, harmony and stability in the country is a key determinant in foreign policy.
It is in order that we recall the contribution made by Abe to consolidation of India-Japan bilateralism. The nuclear agreement signed in Tokyo in 2017 was due to Abe’s initiatives as Japan had bitterness towards India following the 1998 nuclear test at Pokhran. As the only victim of nuclear bombs, Japan had a non-nuclear stand in its relations with any country, yet under Abe, Japan made that concession to India. The nuclear agreement opened up huge possibilities for transfer of nuclear technologies for peaceful use.
The bilateral trade between two countries touched a record high and Abe’s stewardship. It is increased for 7.023 billion USD in 2005 to 172.8 billion USD in 2018, a whopping rise of 146 per cent. Likewise, Japanese investment in India increased from 2.8 billion USD in 2005 to 35.8 billion USD in 2018. India had opened a special window to speed up Japanese investment. Abe was considering relocating quite a few companies away from China.
From a strategic point of view Abe was clear that India-Japan relations was crucial for maintaining peace and rule-based order in India Pacific region and to contain China, a major threat. Abe had famously remarked in 2006 that nobody knew 10 years from now, Japan-China trade would surpass Japan-US trade, similarly 10 years from now, who could tell that Japan-India trade will overtake that of Japan-China or Japan-US trade.
Reiterating Abe’s contribution to the formation of Quad, it is he who had persuaded Manmohan Singh and US leadership in 2007 to constitute Quad comprising US, Japan, India and Australia. In fact, it is Quad that is standing as the strongest bulwark against expansionist China in India Pacific, South China Sea and elsewhere. Beijing is certainly wary of the combined strength of these four democratic countries which can squelch China’s evil designs at any stage. That is why China is nibbling at India’s borders and harassing Australians to browbeat them in to inaction against China.
It is no coincidence that Beijing has aggravated the ongoing border conflict in Eastern Laddakh since New Delhi refused to participate in a customary combined military exercise with Russian, Chinese and Pakistani forces between 15 to 26 September at KavKaz. The next SCO meeting is to take place on 10 September at Chenyabinsk, Russia in which the External Affairs Minister and the Defence Minister are reported to attend. Since Russia is assuming the rotating presidency of SCO, New Delhi might be attending to keep Russia in good humour. But it should really boycott this meeting too to express our disapproval of Chinese aggressive activities at the border. A clear message is better than fudging it through misplaced alliances and missteps of being seen with China.
Coming back post-Abe, India-Japan relations, it is unlikely that there would be any substantive change of strategy from either side as they have to contend with the common enemy, the Peoples Republic of China. It is also certain that Chinese imperialist and expansionist stances will not change as long as Xi Jinping helms the Chinese politics. Xi is consumed by the desire of making China the number one super power in the name of reclaiming Chinese ‘legitimate glory’. Personalities do matter as much as policies. The front runner to replace Abe is the Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide-Suga, who is likely to carry on with Abe’s approach and legacy. At any rate, whoever becomes the new Prime Minister of Japan on 14 September will maintain the cordial relations with India. At the same time, New Delhi must continue the good relations with Japan. Quad is the only hope and forum for New Delhi to counter Chinese ambitions and aggressions in the India-Pacific region. The so-called multiple alliances advocated by the current NDA government, mainly by the Foreign Minister are in tune with pragmatic diplomacy. But focusing on the true, effective and dependable partners is what New Delhi should aim for. Neutrality or non-alignment are self-defeating propositions. Our relations with Japan under Abe and Modi are an example to replicate. One simply hopes that South Block will not hark back to the past approach of our foreign policy, which it occasionally does as was experienced with China.
The author is Prof, International Politics, JMI