LONDON – With the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) winning a landslide in Japanese parliamentary elections and Shinzo Abe assuming the office of prime minister in Japan for the second time, India-Japan ties 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 toward Japan.
It is now possible to envision an end to this drift in Delhi-Tokyo ties.
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 hawk vis-à-vis China, he has made it clear that he will be working toward 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 coming to power of the LDP, and what is very controversial is Abe’s expressed desire to rewrite the Japanese post-World War II pacifist Constitution to allow for a full-fledged military.
Tensions between China and Japan have been rising over a group of uninhabited islands (known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China) in the East China Sea ever since the Japanese government decided to buy three of the islands from a private owner. Recently, China has not only sent a flotilla of navy ships near the islands but also a military surveillance plane into Japanese airspace, forcing Japan to scramble fighter jets in response.
China is steadily escalating its pressure on Japan as part of a strategy overseen by the new leader, Xi Jinping.
After his party’s victory, Abe was quick to underscore the point 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 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 in the rare-earths industry. This memorandum 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.
The discussions on civilian nuclear energy cooperation between the two states have been stuck for quite some time now. With Abe’s coming to power with a strong 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 play a larger role in resolving 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 India-Japan relationship and gave it an entirely new dimension.
In his address to the joint session of the Indian Parliament, Abe talked about a “broader Asia” constituting Pacific and Indian Ocean countries including Japan, India, Australia and the U.S., all of which share common values of democracy, freedom and respect for basic human rights. He argues for greater cooperation among these states.
In his book, “Toward a Beautiful Country,” Abe makes the case for Japan advancing its national interests by strengthening its ties with India. He has argued: “It will not be a surprise if, in another decade, Japan-India relations overtake Japan-U.S. 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 U.S., Australia and India, a framework that he stressed would be based on their shared universal values such as freedom, democracy, human rights and rule of law.
Since assuming office in December, Abe has not only underscored the importance of consolidating Japan’s historic alliance with the United States but also expressed the desire to deepen partnerships with India, Indonesia and Australia.
New Delhi now has a chance to lend a new dimension to its ties with Tokyo. With a new leadership in Tokyo that has 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.
Harsh V. Pant teaches at King’s College London.