Shinzo Abe: Pillar of Indo-Japanese ties

Indo-Japan ties in a limbo post-Abe

Politics

September 3, 2020

/ By / New Delhi



modi and shinzo abe

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe with his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi after a joy ride aboard a Shinkansen on latter’s visit to Japan in 2016

One of the most powerful prime ministers of Japan since the end of the World War II, Shinzo Abe was instrumental in bringing momentum to ties with India.

On September 14, Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party will choose its new leader to succeed Prime Minister Shinzo Abe who resigned two weeks ago due to ill-health. Though a few names have been doing the rounds since then and a few hats have been thrown in the ring, whoever the new leader of LDP is will find that replacing Abe was easier said than done, not just at home in terms of managing the economy which is reeling under its worst-ever performance due to the coronavirus pandemic, but also role of Japan in the world and its key bilateral relationships.

India is nothing new to Abe. His first official visit to India took place in 1984 when he was the foreign minister in Nakasone’s cabinet. In fact, Abe had gone to prepare the first-ever visit by a Japanese PM to India later that year. Though he did not get the opportunity to visit India again for a long time, it was evident that the country had left a deep impression on him and fit very well in Abe’s scheme of things.

Thus, 23 years later when he first became the Prime Minister, Abe did not waste time in visiting India and participated in his first summit meeting with the then Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. But before he could give shape to his plans for India, illness forced him to resign. He then had to wait till taking charge again 2012, but then he immediately actioned his plans for India. And in the eight years since then, Shinzo Abe has managed to give an entirely new meaning to Indo-Japanese relations, by adding numerous dimensions to a relationship that had largely been trade-driven until 2012. In 2007, he addressed India’s Parliament and was back seven years later as chief guest at the Republic Day parade. It was under Abe that the annual Japan-India summits reached a new meaning. It was also under Abe’s watch the 2014 Indo-Japan nuclear deal went through, despite stiff anti-nuclear opposition in Tokyo.

Right from the time that he entered politics, following the footsteps of his uncle, Abe had been pushing Japan into uncharted territory, especially in terms of defence and strategic matters. A very vocal proponent of a more outward looking and proactive Japan, Abe was also one of rare Japanese politicians since the end of the World War II to talk of strengthening Japanese defence forces. He was also keen for them to participate in exercises and activities outside the country and even in remote parts of the world, something that was forsaken by Japan at the end of the WWII as one of the key demands of the Allied forces. In fact, one of the key tasks that Abe had set upon himself was amending Japanese Constitution to reflect the realities of today’s Japan which would no longer shy away from a more aggressive and military posturing.

Abe had two main reasons for trying to get Japan to not only refurbish its defence capabilities, but also have the option of flexing muscles overseas. His tenure coincided with the rise of tensions in East Asia thanks to aggressive posturing by both China and North Korea. Abe has been worried about Pyongyang’s frequent missile launches as well as Xi Jinping’s various moves to project Chinese strategic and defence strength well beyond its borders and pretty much into the face of other nations in East Asia. As a result, over the past decade or so, relations between Japan and North Korea and China have been uneasy at best and on the brink in the worst.

As part of his strategy to make Japan a meaningful military player and capable of thwarting any real threat from both China and North Korea, Abe solicited strategic pacts with several nations including India. As part of this, the two sides reinforced their annual naval exercises. He also played a key role in convincing India to join the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, a forum that Japan shares with the United States and Australia, besides India. The thinly-veiled objective of the QSD is to contain an ever-more aggressive China and ringfence Japan and other nations against military adventures by Beijing.

Abe’s focus on building Indo-Japanese defence ties was also with the objective of getting Japan a slice of one of the biggest importers of weapon system in the world. After revoking Japan’s self-imposed ban on sale of weapons, Abe has been aggressively trying to sell submarines, aircraft and other equipment to India.

Booming trade & investment

The last decade and half have seen a quantum jump in Indo-Japanese trade. From a mere JPY 740 billion in 2005, the annual bilateral trade now stands at JPY 1821 billion and over the years Japanese investments in India have also risen multifold. During Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first visit to Japan in September 2014, the two leaders decided to set a goal of doubling Japan’s direct investment and the number of Japanese companies in India by 2019. For his part, Abe added that Japan would make a total of JPY 3500 billion in public and private investment and financing, including Official Development Assistance (ODA), in India by the year 2019. Though data for 2019 is yet to come, India received a total of JPY 1933 billion between 2014-2018. The two nations have fairly ambitious plans in business and investment.

To channel Japanese investments, Indian government decided to create Japanese industrial townships in the country which would be clusters of Japanese businesses, with related services such as Japanese restaurants, Japanese schools and Japanese shops for the comfort of Japanese expats working in these townships. These townships will also provide Japanese language training to Indian workers.

Japan has already financed some landmark development projects in India, including the Delhi Metro. In 2015, India opted for Shinkansen high speed train system, or Japanese bullet train, for its first such rail line connecting Mumbai with Ahmedabad. The total cost of the project is expected to be USD 17 billion, with 81 pc of it being financed on a low interest rate by JICA, the investment agency of Japanese government.

Japan also decided to give a helping hand to India in meeting the challenge of developing a skilled workforce, notably in the manufacturing sector. Japan will be training 30,000 Indian workers over next decade in the Japan-India Institute for Manufacturing (JIM), providing Japanese style manufacturing skills and practices. In summer 2017, the first four JIMs started in Gujarat, Karnataka, Rajasthan and Tamil Nadu, and the first Japan Entrepreneurship Centre (JEC) was established in Andhra Pradesh.

Though Abe has given a clear direction and momentum to the bilateral ties, his successor will have his task cut out for himself. Rather belatedly, the Indian government has asked Japan to review the cost of the Shinkansen project and wants Japan to outsource more of the project work to Indian companies. The train project is already facing trouble in land acquisition as not all farmers are happy to give up their fertile terrain for a ‘project of national interest’. Moreover, the pandemic has changed a lot of things dramatically and caused unprecedented misery in India. First task for Abe’s successor would be to not only see how Japan can lend a helping hand to India in overcoming this crisis, but also to ensure that the pandemic does not derail this key partnership.

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