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India was not unfamiliar territory for Japan’s deceased former prime minister Shinzo Abe on his first prime ministerial visit in 2007. He had first heard of India sitting on his grandfather’s lap. Nobusuke Kishi, the first Japanese prime minister to visit independent India, was Jawaharlal Nehru’s guest in 1957. Abe recalls with affection the stories he had heard as a child about India from his grandfather.
Abe’s first meeting with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in fact took place a few months before Abe’s first term as prime minister in 2006. He was then on a visit to India as Japan’s chief cabinet secretary, a position that would normally not have entitled him to a meeting with the Indian prime minister. Fortunately, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, Indian external affairs minister today, knew of Abe’s rising political star having served as chief of mission at the Indian Embassy in Tokyo in the late 1990s. At Jaishankar’s behest, I arranged a private, informal meeting with Dr Singh, who readily agreed to brush protocol aside and invited Abe for tea. Soon thereafter Abe took charge as Japan’s prime minister.
In his altogether brief first term – lasting precisely a year from September 26, 2006 to September 26, 2007 – one of Abe’s important foreign policy initiatives was to visit India and set out a new vision of India-Japan relations through his address to the Indian parliament. He dubbed it ‘Broader Asia’. The Pacific and the Indian Oceans are “now bringing about a dynamic coupling as seas of freedom and of prosperity. A ‘Broader Asia’ that broke away geographical boundaries is now beginning to take on a distinct form. Our two countries have the ability — and the responsibility — to ensure that it broadens yet further and to nurture and enrich these seas to become seas of clearest transparence”.
With those words, Shinzo Abe began his historic address to the Indian parliament. To an audience that had not yet absorbed the full import of the historic shift Abe was seeking in Japan’s relations with India, he added: “This is the message I wish to deliver directly today to the one billion people of India. That is why I stand before you now in the Central Hall of the highest chamber, to speak with you, the people’s representatives of India.” Japan is now trying to “catch up to the reality of this ‘Broader Asia’,” he told Indian MPs. “Japan has undergone ‘The Discovery of India’, by which I mean we have rediscovered India as a partner that shares the same values and interests and also as a friend that will work alongside us to enrich the seas of freedom and prosperity, which will be open and transparent to all.”
Seeking a “Confluence of the Two Seas”, the Pacific and the Indian Oceans, Abe asked the Indian parliament if it was not time for a value-based and interests-based relationship between India and Japan. “This partnership is an association in which we share fundamental values such as freedom, democracy, and the respect for basic human rights as well as strategic interests. Japanese diplomacy is now promoting various concepts in a host of different areas so that a region called ‘the Arc of Freedom and Prosperity’ will be formed along the outer rim of the Eurasian continent. The Strategic Global Partnership of Japan and India is pivotal for such pursuits to be successful.”
This speech defined Abe’s role not just in Japan-India relations but in the crafting of the concept of the Indo-Pacific and his larger vision for a community of Asian democracies. As for Japan-India relations, Abe was only building on a foundation that had already been prepared by his two distinguished predecessors, Yoshiro Mori and Junichiro Koizumi. The Koizumi-Manmohan Singh meeting of April 2006 had defined the parameters of the emerging Japan-India relationship. However, it was left to Abe to build on this and take it forward.
Returning to power for a longer term in 2012, he placed India at the heart of his foreign policy for the Indo-Pacific region. He won Indian hearts by travelling to Banaras with Prime Minister Narendra Modi in December 2015 and witnessing the evening arti at the Dasashwamedha Ghat – a visual that truly defined the Japan-India civilisational connect.
In Japan’s own national development, Abe will be remembered for his commitment to Japan’s re-emergence as a normal Asian power with a 21st-century personality of its own, and not one defined by the history of the 20th century. While Abe sought to preserve the Japan-US relationship, he was committed to rebuilding Japan’s own defence capability. No post-War Japanese prime minister represented this emerging national desire of Asia’s first industrial nation as much as Abe did. While his ‘three arrows’ economic reforms programme took time to deliver results, he did manage to bring Japan out of the funk it had got into in the 1990s. Japan’s new 21st-century personality is very much an Abe legacy.
Sanjaya Baru is a writer and policy analyst.