Shinzo Abe and Delhi-Tokyo Ties

By Harsh V. Pant

Indian and Japanese flags in New Delhi. Source: generalising's flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

With the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) winning a landslide in Japanese parliamentary elections and Shinzo Abe assuming the office of prime minister in Japan, India-Japan relations have entered a new phase. For Japan, embroiled in its domestic political instability and economic drift, India has not been a top priority in recent years. Indian bureaucracy has also been unwilling to push the pacts underpinning the ‘strategic partnership’ to signal seriousness towards Japan. It is now possible to envision an end to this drift in Delhi-Tokyo ties.

In his second innings, Abe has promised to stimulate the Japanese economy and end deflation by passing a strong stimulus bill as well as to make Japanese exports more competitive by devaluing the yen. Though he is viewed as a staunch nationalist and a hawk vis-à-vis China, he has made it clear that he would be working towards improving ties with China as well as the United States.

What is perhaps most significant is that nuclear power will be back in business with the LDP’s return and what is very controversial is Abe’s expressed desire to rewrite the Japanese post-World War II pacifist constitution allowing for a full-fledged military.

Tensions between Japan and China have been rising over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. China is steadily escalating its pressure on Japan as part of a strategy being overseen by the new party chief, Xi Jinping. Abe was quick to underline after his party’s victory that “China is challenging the fact that (the islands) are Japan’s inherent territory,” and suggested that his party’s “objective is to stop the challenge” and not to “worsen relations between Japan and China.”

As the world watches carefully how Abe’s second term in office will shape Japan’s domestic and foreign policies, New Delhi should lose no time in reaching out to Tokyo. Given Abe’s admiration for India and his repeated articulation of the need for India and Japan to work more closely, this is a unique opportunity to radically alter the contours of Indo-Japanese ties.

While Delhi-Tokyo relations have been developing slowly and steadily over the last few years, the momentum seems to have left this very important bilateral partnership some time back. The two nations have recently concluded the agreement on social security as well as a memorandum on cooperation (MoC) in the rare earths industry. The rare earths industry MoC was a significant initiative in light of China’s decision to cut off its exports of rare earths minerals to Japan following a territorial dispute in 2010. But the discussions on civilian nuclear energy cooperation between the two states have been stuck for quite some time now. With Abe’s pro-nuclear power agenda, time is ripe to regain the initiative on these negotiations.

China’s rise is the most significant variable in the Asian geostrategic landscape today and both India and Japan would like to see a constructive China playing a larger role in the solving of regional and global problems rather than becoming a problem itself. Concerns are rising for both states, about China’s assertive diplomatic and military posture. China’s attempts to test the diplomatic and military mettle of its neighbors will only bring Japan and India closer. While New Delhi and Tokyo would like greater transparency and restraint on Beijing’s part, there is now a need for them to be more candid about their expectations.

Of all recent Japanese leaders, Shinzo Abe has been the most enthusiastic about the future of the India-Japan relationship and gave it an entirely new dimension. In his address to the joint session of the Indian Parliament in 2007, Abe talked about a “broader Asia” constituting Pacific and Indian Ocean countries such as Japan, India. Australia and the United States, that share common values of democracy, freedom and respect for basic human rights.

In his book, Towards a Beautiful Country, Abe makes the case for Japan advancing its national interests by strengthening its ties with India. He argued: “It will not be a surprise if in another decade Japan-India relations overtake Japan-US and Japan-China ties.”

Building on the idea of a triangular security dialogue between Washington, Tokyo, and Canberra initiated by his predecessor, Abe made known his desire to create a four-way strategic dialogue with the United States, Australia and India, a framework that he stressed would be based on their shared universal values. Since assuming office in December, Abe has once again underscored the importance of not only consolidating Japan’s historic alliance with the United States but also expressed a desire to deepen partnerships with India, Indonesia and Australia.

New Delhi now has a chance to give a new dimension to its ties with Tokyo. With a new leadership in Tokyo possessing a decisive mandate, the old issues that once seemed insurmountable should be able to find some resolution. India should push Japan into giving Delhi-Tokyo ties a much more substantive dimension and move beyond old shibboleths. The time is right for India and Japan to seize the initiative and transform the strategic landscape in the Asia-Pacific.

Dr. Harsh V. Pant is a non-resident adjunct fellow of the Wadhwani Chair in U.S.-India Policy Studies at CSIS. To read a more in-depth version of this post keep an eye on the Japan Chair Platform essay series from CSIS.

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