2008 is the year I graduated and entered the job market. Those were dark days for job seekers due to the global economic recession, triggered by US financial crisis – Lehmann Brothers fell and the vulnerability of the Western economy got exposed. Many developed nations implemented austerity measures as millions lost their jobs and those who sustained their jobs took pay cuts. Despite these tough times, India and China were the two countries which withstood the global financial meltdown and continued to grow impressively. Therefore, in my view, 2008 is the year when the political and economic center of gravity started formally shifting from West to East. This development brought in a sense of nervousness in the West. Western nations, with a glorious economic past and ageing populations, troubled by crippling economies, saw the rise of China as a threat. While China’s growth story started in the 1970s, it is around 2008 that China started getting increasingly assertive and expansionist in her motives. Most territorial disputes in East and South China Sea escalated between 2004 and 2010. This was the time when the world started looking at India as an economic giant who can balance the power in Asia and keep China under check.
Chinese aggression strained the US-Japan alliance. Japan, after World War 2, entered into a defense agreement with the US wherein the US would protect Japan from any external aggression or threat. After decades of relative calm, tensions between China and Japan peaked due to China’s increased activity in the East and South China Seas. At the same time, US, having burnt its hands in 2 back-to-back wars in Iraq and Afghanistan started getting worried about its obligation to defend Japan in the case of a conflict with China. Japan sensed America’s unwillingness to get drawn into Sino-Japan conflict and that’s when Tokyo started thinking of reducing its dependency on Washington.
The 2008 global economic crisis impacted Japan badly. Economic stagnation, ageing population, a confrontational China, and an indifferent America – all these factors lead Tokyo’s think-tank to revisit their foreign policy and forge new alliances, especially in Asia. However, political instability in Tokyo delayed the process. Between 2006 and 2012, Japan saw 6 Prime Ministers! In the elections that were held in 2012, Japan’s Liberal Democrat Party got a decisive mandate and its leader Shinzo Abe became the Prime Minister for the second time. Abe earlier served as PM between 2006 and 2007. Prime Minister Abe, known to be an astute strategist, started taking China head-on. He saw a great ally in India.
Shinzo Abe, in his earlier stint as the Prime Minister of Japan, proposed the famous “Security Diamond” concept during his historic address to the Indian Parliament in 2007. He envisioned a security alliance between India, US, Australia, and Japan to uphold the international law. The then Indian government, led by Dr. Manmohan Singh was cold to this proposal by Abe, fearing backlash from China. Also, Shinzo Abe resigned due to health grounds just two months after his address to the Indian parliament. That only meant that his pet proposal of “Security Diamond” went into a cold storage. When Abe returned to power in 2012, he didn’t waste time in pursuing his “Security Diamond” project from where he left off during his earlier stint. He made his intent clear in this article, published just 24 hours after he came to power. He appointed Nobukatsu Kanehara and Tomohiko Taniguchi as his key advisors, who not only strengthened his India-centric vision but also gave a long-term direction to Japan’s policy towards India. Abe then had a tough time convincing Manmohan Singh government in India to boldly counter China by becoming a part of the “Security Diamond” project. Here’s where Abe pulled off a masterstroke! Abe rightly predicted that India would vote for a leadership change in 2014 and he saw the then Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi as the potential next Prime Minister of India. Abe invited Gujarat CM Modi to Tokyo and developed great trade relations with Gujarat. That’s when the bonhomie between Abe and Modi began.
Three months after taking oath as India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi visited Japan. When Modi landed at Kyoto, Shinzo Abe, diverting from the usual protocol, travelled from Tokyo to Kyoto to receive his friend Modi at the airport. In a strictly protocol-adhering country like Japan, this gesture was seen by many as a sign of fostering friendship between India and Japan. The message was clear – Japan became the fulcrum of Modi’s “Act East” policy and India became a sharp edge of Abe’s “Security Diamond”. “Collective defense”, “Freedom of navigation”, “Upholding international rule of law” became the buzzwords in Indo-Japan diplomatic statements.
To understand the bonhomie between Modi and Abe, one needs to look at their personalities. These two leaders are mirror images of each other, except for the fact that Abe comes from a strong political family (Abe’s maternal grandfather Nobusuke Kishi served as Japan’s Prime Minister twice) whereas Modi rose from a humble family of a tea seller. Both Modi and Abe are seen as right wing ultra-nationalist leaders. Both these leaders have strong backing of the conservative groups in their respective countries. While Modi and his party BJP are products of Hindu Nationalist organization Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, Abe is affiliated to Japanese Nationalist group Nippon Kaigi, a strong right-wing Japanese group which advocates State Shinto. In fact, two-thirds of Abe’s Cabinet Colleagues are members of the Nippon Kaigi group. Both Abe and Modi are attacked viciously by the Left-Liberal media, and on more than one occasion, both these leaders have been unfairly branded as “Fascist” by commentators. Naturally, birds of same feather flock together!
Modi and Abe have made steadfast moves in enhancing Indo-Japan relations. India chose Japan over China for its ambitious bullet train project and Japan reciprocated by loaning One Lakh Crore Rupees at a nominal 0.1% interest and a 50-year tenure. Also, Japan is selling defense equipment to India at very competitive prices, drawing angry reactions from Beijing. Above all, Japan has over-turned its self-imposed regulation of not signing civilian nuclear agreements with non-signatories of CTBT/NPT and inked the nuclear deal with India. Japan is now a permanent participant in the annual Malabar Naval Exercises. Japan joined India in the Chabahar Port project in Iran, which will play a crucial role in boosting the Indian Ocean trade corridor. This is an impressive list of bilateral achievements in a span of just 2.5 years! Abe’s “Security Diamond” and Modi’s “Act East” policies complemented each other and cemented a formidable geopolitical alliance in Asia.
It is true that Modi and Abe have taken Indo-Japan relations to new heights. It is also true that both these countries need each other. But, is this relation just based on the China factor? No! It is not. India and Japan have so much in common. Both are ancient civilizations, linked by Buddhism. There are so many beliefs which are common between Indian and Japanese cultures. India and Japan have no contentious issues culturally, historically, economically, or geographically. Most Japanese people respect India as Buddhism was born there. For Indians, Japanese brands like Honda, (Maruti) Suzuki, Sony, Toyota, Yamaha, etc are household names. Politically, both India and Japan are democracies and are part of the “G4 Nations”, supporting each other’s membership in the United Nations Security Council. Considering these factors and also the pace at which Indo-Japan relations have strengthened in the recent years, it is only a matter of time before a formal military alliance is forged. The strengthening of Indo-Japan relations will contribute greatly to peace and stability in Asia and the World by acting as a deterrent against expansionist forces and bring economic prosperity to the region by upholding the rule of international law and freedom of navigation in the region’s high seas.