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A new phase in Indo-Japanese ties?

December 24, 2012 19:25 IST

Of all recent Japanese leaders, new Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been the most enthusiastic about the future of India-Japan relationship and gave it an entirely new dimension. New Delhi now has a chance to greatly improve its ties with Tokyo. It must seize the moment, say Harsh V Pant.

In a dramatic reversal of fortunes, the Liberal Democratic Party has won a landslide in Japanese parliamentary elections three years after getting defeated by the Democratic Party of Japan. Taking responsibility for the crushing defeat of the DPJ, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda resigned immediately suggesting that his government "failed to meet the people's hopes after the change of government three years and four months ago."

The DPJ's performance at governance had been so disappointing that the voters had to go back to a party that promised to revive the sclerotic Japanese economy and stand up to an increasingly aggressive China.

LDP leader Shinzo Abe conceded that "this was not a restoration of confidence in the LDP, but a rejection of three years of incompetent rule by the DPJ." The LDP has won 294 seats in the 480-seat lower house of the Diet, up from just 119 seats in the last elections. As a result, Abe will be Japan's 14th prime minister in two decades.

It is being hoped that the political paralysis plaguing Japan for the last several years will be resolved now with the LDP forming the government with the New Komeito Party, giving the coalition a 320-seat veto-proof 'supermajority,' allowing it to pass bills without the support of the DPJ-led upper house.

Abe had previously served as the Japanese prime minister for a year from September 2006, but was forced to step down due to poor public support ratings and a chronic stomach ailment. In his second innings, Abe has promised to stimulate the Japanese economy and end deflation by passing a strong stimulus bill as well as to make Japanese exports more competitive by devaluing the yen.

Though he is viewed as a staunch nationalist and a hawk vis-à-vis China, he made it clear that he would be working towards improving ties with China as well as the United States. What is perhaps most significant is that nuclear power will be back in business with the coming to power of the LDP and what is very controversial is Abe's expressed desire to rewrite the Japanese post-World War II pacifist constitution allowing for a full-fledged military.

Tensions between China and Japan have been rising over the islands known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China ever since the Japanese government decided to buy some of the islands from a private sector owner. In recent days, China has not only sent a flotilla of naval ships nears the islands but a Chinese military surveillance plane also entered Japanese airspace, forcing Japan to scramble fighter jets in response.

China is steadily escalating its pressure on Japan as part of a strategy being overseen by the new leader, Xi Jinping. Abe was quick to underline after his party's victory that "China is challenging the fact that (the islands) are Japan's inherent territory," and suggested that his party's "objective is to stop the challenge" and not to "worsen relations between Japan and China."

Beijing has had a muted reaction to Abe's victory so far, merely underlining that the Chinese government hopes that "the Japanese politicians can look at the big picture of the development of the China-Japan relations and work with China to drive the sound and stable growth of relations forward."

As the world watches carefully how Abe's second term in office will shape Japan's domestic and foreign policies, New Delhi should lose no time in reaching out to Tokyo. Given Abe's admiration for India and his repeated articulation of the need for India and Japan to work more closely, this is a unique opportunity to radically alter the contours of Indo-Japanese ties.

While Delhi-Tokyo relations have been developing slowly and steadily over the last few years, the momentum seems to have left this very important bilateral partnership some time back. The two nations have recently concluded the agreement on social security as well as a memorandum on cooperation in the rare earths industry.

The rare earths MoC was a significant initiative in light of China's decision to cut off its exports of rare earths minerals to Japan following a territorial dispute in 2010. But the discussions on civilian nuclear energy cooperation between the two states have been stuck for quite some time now. With Abe's coming to power with a strong pro-nuclear power agenda, the time is ripe to regain the initiative on these negotiations.

Of all recent Japanese leaders, Abe has been the most enthusiastic about the future of India-Japan relationship and gave it an entirely new dimension. In his address to the joint session of the Indian Parliament, Abe talked about a "broader Asia" constituting of Pacific and Indian Ocean countries such as Japan, India. Australia and the US, that share common values of democracy, freedom and respect for basic human rights.

He argued for greater cooperation among these states. In his book, Towards a Beautiful Country, Abe makes the case about Japan advancing its national interests by strengthening its ties with India. He has argued: "It will not be a surprise if in another decade Japan-India relations overtake Japan-US and Japan-China ties." Building on the idea of a triangular security dialogue between Washington, Tokyo, and Canberra initiated by his predecessor, Abe made known his desire to create a four-way strategic dialogue with the US, Australia and India, a framework that he stressed would be based on their shared universal values such as freedom, democracy, human rights, and rule of law.

New Delhi now has a chance to give a new dimension to its ties with Tokyo. It must seize the moment.

Harsh V Pant