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What Abe’s Return Means for India-Japan Ties

With the former Prime Minister once again at the helm of the LDP, relations with India could receive a further boost.

In 2006 Abe Shinzo, appointed again last week as leader of the ​Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), Japan’s main opposition party, wrote; “It will not be a surprise if in another decade, Japan-India relations overtake Japan-U.S. and Japan-China ties.” Such a prediction now, as it was then, is improbable, but the prospect of Abe assuming Japan’s top office could have a dramatic impact on Japan-India ties.

In Japan, the decision on September 26th by the LDP to reappoint Abe as their leader brought widespread bewilderment. Abe’s sudden resignation due to illness as well as political weakness in 2007 led many to believe his effort futile. Yet in India, Abe remains a well-respected and popular figure. During his time as Prime Minister (2006-2007) Indian commentators described Abe as young and energetic – Japan’s “Rajiv Gandhi.”

Unlike his predecessor, Koizumi Junichiro, Asia rather than America shaped Abe’s foreign policy. Highly influenced by his grandfather, former Prime Minister Kishi Nobusuke, who had fond memories of visiting India in 1957, Abe was encouraged to widen Japan’s traditional conception of the region and create a “broader Asia” which included India. In 2006 as Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary, Abe described Indo-Japanese relations in Utsukushii Kuni E (Towards a Beautiful Country) as “the most important bilateral relationship in the world.”

Japan-India relations have developed significantly since their nadir in the late 1990’s. Opposing views on the possession of nuclear weapons following India testing in 1998 divided the two, as Tokyo imposed uncharacteristically severe sanctions on Delhi. However, as India’s economy has grown following the consolidation of liberalization reforms, and China’s influence has risen in tandem, India once again has entered Japan’s diplomatic radar.

China was never far from Abe foreign policy’s focus and through “shared values” rhetoric, the India relationship became framed around the “Quad” initiative between the U.S., Japan, Australia and India. Support for the “Quad” gradually fizzled due to concerns over alienating Beijing, as Abe’s own political power waned.

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Since then, relations have centered on economic ties. Japanese businesses have, albeit slowly, grown to appreciate the potential of the Indian market, with its growing middle class and vast potential for infrastructure development. The prospect of India one day serving as an export hub to Africa and the Middle East also remains in corporate minds.

Furthermore, just as in 2005 when violent anti-Japanese riots spread across China, encouraging Japanese firms to diversify their business models, the recent flare-ups over the Senkakus/Diaoyu Islands may have a similar effect. India remains a challenging market but with companies such as Toyota and Nissan temporarily scaling back production in China in anticipation of reduced sales, alternative strategies will emerge.

It is still popular to recall historical ties such as the spread of Buddhism from India to Japan in the sixth century, but in truth Japan-India relations are founded in the present and future. Today Japan and India hold not only a Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) but also a Strategic and Global Partnership covering a wide range of issues. As the current Indian Ambassador to Japan recently told an audience in Okinawa, never before in the two countries’ long history has engagement been so deep.

This year saw the first bilateral exercises between the Indian Navy and Japanese MDSF as well as working-level dialogue on maritime issues, cyber-security talks and Japan commit nearly 133 billion yen (US$1.7 billion) for Official Development Assistance projects. The Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor (DMIC) project – an impressive infrastructure project spanning almost 1500km and continued implementation of CEPA look set to further promote economic ties. After four rounds of negotiations, in May 2012 Japan and India also made significant progress in one of the sticking points during CEPA negotiations for a Social Security Agreement.

Japan’s decision in September to phase out nuclear power from its energy mix worried those in India keen to conclude a civil nuclear agreement with Japan. Tokyo’s willingness to open negotiations with India, a non-NPT member in 2010 demonstrated the importance attributed to strong relations with Delhi. Whilst the details of the plan have yet to be finalized and may well be adjusted under an LDP administration, India will be carefully watching developments. The implications for overseas exports are unclear but with falling domestic demand for nuclear energy, Japan’s technological expertise – one of its major assets, may well diminish.

This year Japan and India celebrated 60 years of diplomatic relations. Within both Japan and India, the relationship enjoys widespread support. In addition, the United States has been consistently supportive of stronger ties. Whilst for Japan the relationship might be part of an effort to diversify strategic partners from Washington, trust between these two democracies also serves U.S. interests in the region.

Should Abe become Japan’s next prime minister, diplomatic objectives will likely center around mending relations with Beijing and Seoul, as well as working to resolve the Osprey and Futenma issues in Okinawa. Abe also did not win his party’s nomination outright but through a second, Diet member-only vote, suggesting that garnering domestic support will be another priority. When Abe assumed office in 2006 he tempered some of his more nationalist rhetoric by making conciliatory visits to China and the ROK. A similar compromise might well be made should he again occupy the Prime Minister’s Residence.

However, it is likely Abe will bring relations with India back to the forefront of his diplomatic vision. Since leaving office Abe has maintained his enthusiasm for deeper ties with India, for example, he called for strengthening ties between maritime democracies during a speech in India in December 2011.

At a time when Japan faces pressure from neighbors on almost all sides, Japan’s leaders may well court India’s goodwill. However, with the chances of a DPJ loss and LDP return to government uncertain, when Indian Prime Minister Singh visits Japan later this year, whether Noda or Abe will greet him is yet to be determined.

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Vicky Tuke is currently a Daiwa Scholar at at Daiwa Anglo-Japanese Foundation in Japan.