Shinzo Abe's landslide win marks an inflection point in India-Japan bilateral relationship

Shinzo Abe's landslide electoral win comes at an important time in Asian geopolitics and is likely to mark an inflection point in Japan's bilateral relationship with India. No Japanese premier has invested so much in institutionalising the ties, and no Indian prime minister before Narendra Modi has reciprocated with so much gusto. The reasons behind firming up of the ties just became stronger.

No sooner did Abe's ruling Liberal Democratic Party and its allies win 'super majority' (two-third) in the lower house of Japan's Parliament that Modi congratulated his counterpart in both English and Japanese. The formalities carried an unmistakable note of warmth.

Abe may become Japan's longest-serving premier if he runs and wins a third term to lead his party in next year's polls. Modi will be fervently hoping that Abe does so, because it would clearly be beneficial for India. The leaders enjoy good personal chemistry, have a similar style of leadership, broad ideological convergence and have been wise enough to focus on the geopolitical, economic and strategic dovetailing of interests to take the relationship forward.

In doing so, both leaders were staying true to the moorings of these two ancient civilizations. A strong note of civilisational and cultural connect permeates the relationship. From the Indian monk, Bodhisena, who performed the consecration of Budhha's statue in Todaji Temple in 752 AD to Rabindranath Tagore, JRD Tata or Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose's connection with Japan, as an Ministry of External Affairs document says, "throughout the various phases of history since civilizational contacts between India and Japan began some 1400 years ago, the two countries have never been adversaries. Bilateral ties have been singularly free of any kind of dispute – ideological, cultural or territorial."

Shinzo Abes landslide win marks an inflection point in India-Japan bilateral relationship

A file image of Japan prime minister Shinzo Abe. Reuters

Abe has added a personal connect to this civilisational framework. He has promised to remain a "friend of India forever", just as his grandfather Nobusuke Kishi, the then prime minister of Japan, pledged eternal friendship with India six decades ago before Jawaharlal Nehru. It's unclear whether Modi will acknowledge Nehru's contribution in firming up the ties but as a prime minister distinctly aware of the importance of the bilateral relationship, Modi has moved fast to institutionalise it.

The Malabar exercise—which serves as a fulcrum of India's maritime engagement with the US and Japan and is crucial for maintaining a rules-based order in the Indian Ocean and the broader Asia-Pacific Region—fell prey to Chinese bullying tactics when India decided to restrict it as a bilateral affair with the US for seven years since 2008 due to Beijing's "annoyance".

In showing huge amount of unreciprocated respect towards Chinese sensitivities, India undermined Japan and poured cold water over the concept of maritime quadrilateral (the quad, also involving Australia)—a loose strategic deterrence to check China's aggressive revanchism over South China Sea.

One of Modi's first jobs since becoming prime minister was to invite Japan in the joint naval exercise. As Professor Harsh V Pant notes in The Diplomat, "The level of strategic convergence between Delhi and Tokyo can be gauged from the fact in 2014, India invited the Japanese Navy to participate in the annual Malabar exercises with the US Navy in the Pacific waters, reviving an earlier practice of joint India-US-Japan trilateral exercises... After China made its displeasure clear, India refused to be a part of these exercises from 2008. With the coming of Modi government, Japan’s participation in Malabar has been institutionalised."

Japan's participation in 2015 naval drills involving India and the US drew an expectedly sharp response from China. Global Times, China's Communist Party mouthpiece, in a 2015 editorial accused India of inviting "unnecessary speculation" that "Washington and New Delhi are considering turning Japan into a permanent partner" and "the trilateral drill is targeted at China."

Strategic compulsions was the chief reason behind Modi's move to include Japan in the trilateral naval drill. But it wasn't the only reason. Diversifying partners in the Indo-Pacific to hedge against Chinese dominance, at the risk of drawing China's ire, lies at the core of Modi's nationalist politics and it is here that both leaders have a huge convergence of ideas.

Abe's resounding win has been variously interpreted  as an opportunistic result for an unpopular leader who profited from Opposition's missteps but such an analysis, while not totally inaccurate, undermines the primary reason behind his victory. In North Korea's threats of nuclear warfare against US allies, Abe tapped into the insecurity of voters and placed himself as the man best placed to safeguard Japanese citizens.

Abe also exploited the confusion created by Donald Trump whose transactional brand of politics raises questions about US fidelity towards its allies and keeps them on edge. For instance, voters such as 38-year-old Natsuyo Kobayashi in Tokyo told The New York Times“The L.D.P. (Abe's party) has been serving such a long time and knows what to do… And I think Japan should become a country that can protect itself with amending the constitution. Missiles have been flying over, but I don’t think the US will actually come to protect us."

The debate about amending the constitution and formalising the role of Japanese Army—a huge issue in pacifist Japan—stems from that insecurity. Abe wasted no time in sending across his message after sealing victory.

In a news conference on Monday, he vowed to "dramatically show counter-measures against the North Korea threat" and along with US and other world powers, would exert "stronger pressure" on North Korea to ensure that "Japanese public is safe, and safeguard our nation."

As these "strong leaders" emerge in different parts of the world, this is where Abe and Modi connect the most. Both have carefully created an image of "protector" and "keeper"—all macho male signifiers—and naturally enjoy huge interpersonal dynamics bypassing and/or cutting through institutional impediments.

Modi and Trump do so by bringing their physicality into the equation (a bear hug or a white-knuckle handshake). The Modi-Abe hugs, for instance, became a huge talking point and generated a spate of discussions.

As long as their association and mutual admiration brings the countries closer and tightens the strategic embrace, India would want to see Abe continue as Japanese prime minister for another term.

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Updated Date: Oct 23, 2017 19:37:23 IST

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