Shinzo Abe redefined India-Japan ties | Opinion

ByTitli Basu
Sep 09, 2020 06:58 AM IST

But there have been some misses as well. Trade balance and progress in high-technology trade needs more attention

From capturing global strategic imagination with his “Confluence of the Two Seas” speech in the Indian Parliament to articulating the India-Japan Indo-Pacific Vision 2025 — the Shinzo Abe era is defined by high-powered diplomacy that delivered.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Yamanakako village, Yamanashi prefecture, October 28, 2018(AP)
Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Yamanakako village, Yamanashi prefecture, October 28, 2018(AP)

As the challenges to the liberal order grew, India and Japan turned their geopolitical and geo-economic concerns into concerted actions. They advanced issue-based alignments, be it defending the rules-based order through Japan-United States (US)-India (JAI) and Quad or designing the Australia-India-Japan Supply Chain Resilience Initiative.

China’s rise, alliance politics and hedging against American abandonment shaped Tokyo’s policy discourse. Abe’s strategic calculations manifested internal and external balancing. He rewired Japan’s post-war security posture, reinforced the US-Japan alliance, and wove a network of strategic partnerships across Indo-Pacific.

Abe envisaged Tokyo’s role in the international system as a stabiliser and a rules-promoter. His Indo-Pacific Vision remained anchored on rule of law, freedom of navigation and over flight, trade liberalisation, and multilateralism.

As Japan conceptualised universal value- based strategic designs, India has been accorded primacy in the Arc of Freedom and Prosperity, Asia’s Democratic Security Diamond, and the Free and Open Indo-Pacific.

Abe’s strategic imagination was complemented by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Act East policy. Mutuality of values and convergence of strategic interests added qualitative depth. Much of the dynamism draws from the personal comradery between the two leaders. The high-resolution optics — from shinkansen ride to Kobe and private dinner at Yamanashi home, Ganga aarti at Dashashwamedh Ghat and road show to Sabarmati Ashram — Abe has left a deep impression in Indian public memory.

The leaders pushed for collective responsibility in securing the global maritime commons. Firming up maritime security cooperation with humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations, advancing maritime domain awareness, finalising reciprocal support concerning logistics, supplies, and services through Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement (ACSA), and augmenting interoperability within Indo-Pacific navies through Malabar exercises enabled greater leeway in managing a range of shared challenges.

The Abe era also played an instrumental role in enabling India’s economic modernisation. Tokyo is not just a leading source of Official Development Assistance (ODA), but also a top source of foreign direct investment. From mega industrial corridors, high- speed rail and modernising urban rapid transport system, Japanese development assistance has been an enabler. But it is not just mega projects in economic epicentres, Abe has successfully steered development assistance in strategic peripheries, including the Northeast and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Japan’s commitment to the Northeast is projected through the upcoming industrial township in Assam to road connectivity projects that advances quality infrastructure and links the Northeast to the regional value chains and markets of Southeast Asia.

Abe drove infrastructure financing to engineer new frontiers of growth by seizing the international infrastructure market and buttressing strategic partnerships across Southeast and South Asia. Abe designed Japan’s Expanded Partnership for Quality Infrastructure initiative, which served as a win-win formulation for Delhi as it intersected with the Make in India initiative. Fostering economic linkages, industrial networks and connectivity by employing collective capabilities with other like-minded countries has led to joint projects in a few Bay of Bengal states.

In navigating the geopolitics of Indo-Pacific, India-Japan prioritised the Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean) centrality and coordinated strategic agendas in the Asean-led multilateral frameworks. In shaping geo-economics, the Abe administration favoured India’s membership in the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), even though India has had unresolved outstanding issues.

But there have been some misses as well. Trade balance and progress in high-technology trade needs more attention. As Abe eased Japan’s arms export policy, the latitude for defence technology cooperation has been redefined.

Key policy documents and business lobbies in Japan have prioritised markets such as India, but trade in defence technology is a relatively new domain. While cooperative research on Unmanned Ground Vehicle/robotics have been undertaken, concluding the maiden G2G defence equipment cooperation has proved challenging.

As Delhi gears up for a post-Abe leadership, India’s ascendency in Japan’s strategic frame will endure and outlive the Abe administration. This is primarily because the variables that pushed Tokyo to incorporate Delhi in its Indo-Pacific matrix will perhaps become even more urgent, given the geopolitics and geo-economics of the post-Covid-19 world.

Titli Basu is associate fellow, Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses
The views expressed are personal
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