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His popularity among a majority of people back home as well as some admirers in other countries notwithstanding, Japan’s right-wing, nationalist prime minister Shinzo Abe has managed to antagonise sections at home, neighbours like China and South Korea, and ally US since his re-election in December 2012.
No apologist for his country’s role during World War II, Abe has taken a series of steps to restore ‘Japan’s pride’, arguing that 70 years after the conflict, Japan has the right to act as a ‘normal’ nation. He has bolstered his view with a visit on December 26 to the Yasukuni shrine, which hosts deified souls of military personnel killed in action, along with those of 14 Japanese Class A war criminals; declared the ‘Restoration of Sovereignty Day’ to mark April 28, 1952, the day when the Allied occupation after wwii ended; reinterpreted Article 9 of Japan’s post-war constitution to change its pacifist nature and brought in a highly controversial national secrecy law.
These, along with Abe’s measures to rejuvenate the country’s moribund economy, enjoy a significant support among Japanese—almost 60 per cent by a recent count. But they have also raised concerns all around: in Japan, and especially in China and South Korea, where there are fears that Abe’s nationalism may lead to a revival of Japan’s militarist past.
“While it is premature to say that Japan is turning towards militarism, Abe does glorify its wartime past, undermine civic liberties, and has boosted security capacities—it is natural that he is regarded with great suspicion,” says Koichi Nakano of Tokyo’s Sophia University.
As India prepares itself to fete the Japanese PM as the chief guest for its Republic Day celebrations (January 25-27), it is perhaps pertinent to ask if Abe’s rise is in India’s interest. The chief guest is carefully chosen and usually indicates growing ties between New Delhi and the visiting dignitary’s country. India’s willingness to deepen its ‘global and strategic ties’ with Abe’s Japan is being keenly followed.
Some experts say that India should have an equidistant policy and not get enmeshed in Sino-Japanese rivalry.
“Mature relationships between friendly states are generally more multi-faceted than the India-Japan links have been for some time, and thus evidence of a more widely gauged set of discussions...should be welcomed,” says David Malone, former Canadian diplomat and current rector of United Nations University in Tokyo. “That said, the interests and specifics of these two countries are quite different, however genuine their commitment to closer ties, which no one doubts,” Malone adds.
Japan remains a major international player with economic clout and a hi-tech knowledge base, and many see potential in closer India-Japan ties. The Japanese are already committed to mega infrastructure projects in India, like the Delhi-Mumbai industrial corridor and the proposed Bangalore-Chennai corridor. Moreover, New Delhi can use Abe’s visit to revive their under-performing Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement and enlist Tokyo’s support for the India-Mekong Corridor and for joint projects in Myanmar.
Japanese officials point out that the Abe visit before the impending polls, in the light of the fact that the next government will not be headed by Manmohan Singh, is significant. There is no denying that much of Abe’s keenness to build strong ties with India is also being played out in the backdrop of the ongoing turf war between Japan and China in East Asia.
Opinion in India is, therefore, divided over the extent to which New Delhi should go in redefining bilateral ties with the current Japanese regime. Some experts advise using this opportunity to not only strengthen bilateral ties but also to frame a regional security architecture that is presently non-existent in Asia. Others say that India should continue with an equidistant policy and not get enmeshed in the Sino-Japanese rivalry.
“Asian security is now so interlinked that what happens in the East China Sea or the South China Sea tends to have a direct impact on India,” Hemant Krishan Singh, former Indian ambassador to Japan, argues. He says that “in terms of Asia’s balance of power and stability, Indo-Japanese relations will be most consequential”.
Though most other Indian commentators also see Abe’s visit in the backdrop of the tussle for supremacy in East Asia, they are sceptical about India playing a decisive role in it. “India is a minor player in this whole exercise,” says Srikanth Kondapalli of jnu. “But if India is realistic, it should be happy since it’s an opportunity for economic development.” Kondapalli also points out that in the past Japan played an active role in China’s economic growth. Even as the two countries are bitter regional rivals, there are nearly 90,000 Japanese firms operating in China. In comparison, India hosts about 2,000 Japanese companies.
There is no doubt that Abe’s presence will act as a catalyst in toning up bilateral ties and widening areas of India-Japan cooperation. But a cautious India, with huge stakes in an East Asia that also houses China and South Korea—two key investors and trade partners—will not do anything dramatic to create a fresh storm in the Indo-Pacific region.