The invitation to be chief guest for India’s Republic Day celebrations was extended to Shinzo Abe personally by Manmohan Singh over a private dinner in Tokyo that the Japanese PM hosted for the Indian leader and his wife in May 2013 in Tokyo. There were many reasons for Abe’s accepting it. Some were personal and stems from his grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, and his attachment to India. Kishi was the first post-war Japanese PM to visit India in 1957 and he never forgot what Jawaharlal Nehru told a crowd while introducing him: “This is the prime minister of Japan, a country I hold in greatest esteem”.
But his personal chemistry with Manmohan is another important factor. I think Abe genuinely believes in what he told a Sapru House gathering in 2007: “A strong India is in the best interest of Japan and a strong Japan is in the best interest of India”. This belief has been gaining wider acceptance in Japan. Abe’s India visit comes shortly after that of the Japanese emperor and empress—two back-to-back high-level visits to a country is a rarity in Japanese planning—and shows the growing significance of India in the Japanese calculus. It has to be said at this juncture that India needs to convey to the Japanese people the significance and prestige attached to the chief guest at its R-Day ceremony. But the question remains—why does Japan place so much significance on India?
One definite reason is China. Had it not been for its aggressive posture, the pace of Japan-India relations would be much slower. Abe’s visit comes at a critical time. China has been making dangerous, provocative gestures against Japan over the Senkaku islands in East China Sea. China’s decision to set up the Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) over the East China Sea last November and the regular intrusion into Japanese territorial waters by Chinese ships have raised tensions. They also spurred Shinzo Abe’s decision to visit the Yasukuni shrine in December. His visit led to condemnation from various quarters, including the United States.
Although such criticism did not manage to marginalise Japan in any way, reaffirming and strengthening bilateral ties with India under such circumstances means so much for Japan.
Just like Japan’s maritime dispute with China, India shares similar concerns over border disputes with China. Securing freedom of navigation from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific Ocean is crucial for both countries. Some say the purpose of Abe’s visit is to ‘encircle’ a muscle-flexing China. Neither Japan nor India would acknowledge this. But let’s face it, China is a threat and we share the same concern. It is surprising that India, normally nervous in handling anything concerning China, has decided to host Abe at this time. Its political significance will not be lost on China. I think India too has decided to send a message that Japan and India are on the same page when it comes to assessing China.
Makiko Takita is a Tokyo-based writer for the Japanese daily, Sankei Shimbum; E-mail your columnist: makikotakita AT gmail.com