Shinzo Abe’s “Broader Asia” and India Japan Relations
Dr Anil Rawat

In the post war political history of Japan, no Prime Minister has ever evoked so much global media, political, diplomatic, and popular attention as Shinzo Abe while in office and more remarkably in the sudden departure from his office. And rightly so; it is a fitting response to the legacy of a man who not only put long ailing Japanese economy on the path of sound recovery but installed Japan on a trajectory traversing which would help Japan regain its place of honour among the comity of nations and emerge as an important politico-economic centre of strategic global management in the impending multi-polar world structure.

Abe was not a run-of-the-mill politician. Not without any reason was he called the “Prince of Japanese politics”. Abe inherited a rich political legacy and a deep understanding of the Asiatic soul of Japanese nation. His family hails from Yamaguchi Prefecture in the southwest Japan --erstwhile Choshu - the area that provided leadership of the Meiji Restoration, Japan’s modern revolution of 1868, and produced eight of modern Japan’s prime ministers as well as much of the pre–war military leadership. Abe was very proud of his origins. Even if he was born in Tokyo and lived there throughout he maintained his registered residence address (honseki chi) at Nagato, Yamaguchi. His Grand Father Kan Abe became a member of House of Representative (1937-1946) representing a constituency in Yamaguchi Prefecture. His maternal Grand Father Nobusuke Kishi was the prime Minister of Japan. His father Shintaro Abe served as foreign minister in the 1980s, while his great uncle Eisaku Sato served as prime minister (1964–72). Through Sato, Abe has family ties to Matsuoka Yosuke, the Foreign Minister who negotiated Japan’s Axis alliance. Dominance of many Abe family elders in Post war Japanese politics created a web of intimate relationships that propelled rapid rise of Shinzo Abe in the Japanese political hierarchy.

Making of Abe’s Mind

Having been borne in Japan’s prominent political family Abe’s basic political education began at home. Political discussions among family members at home revealed the intricacies of Japanese politics, actors and forces contributing to the evolving political process. Abe family home in Tokyo was a place for frequent backdoor political meetings where important political leaders of the time often gathered to craft strategies for advancing their political goals. Serving and observing the political elders on such occasions the young Shinzo Abe imbibed the subtle art of political negotiations that he later employed with masterful ease.

Then his stay at the Seikei University offered young Abe an opportunity to nurture these practical experiences into theoretical conceptualisation that matured into his political thinking. As a student of Political Science there, he studied, among other subjects, A Political History of Japan that exposed him to the sacred ideas enshrined in Kojiki and Nihon Shoki on the making of Japanese nation as an “Archipelago of Heavenly Peace”. This idea of Archipelago of Heavenly Peace made a lasting impression on Abe’s mind that emerged in hisvision for Japan he expounded in his book “Towards a Beautiful Country: My Vision for Japan”. These stories from Kojiki and Nihon Shoki he must have learnt even in the school history Textbooks but at Seikei he regaled in the study of International Politics and the History of Japanese Political Thought. The political thought that transformed and evolved along the course of history.

The idea of Heavenly Peace was severely jolted by the advent of the Black Ships in the Edo Bay. The event triggered revolutionary changes under the Meiji Ishin; Japan was forced to respond to the new situation that not only opened opportunities to transform domestic political, economic and social system but at once threatened the existence of Japan as an independent nation. The resultant political thought as it unfolded during the Meiji Era was concerned not just about the modernisation of Japanese polity but equally important was the issue of securing Japan’s international position. Leaders of Meiji Ishin quickly gathered around and galvanised the entire population to undertake fundamental transformation of domestic system in all its dimensions and lay foundation for strong and modern Japan to secure a place of honour in the world affairs. That “Spirit of Meiji Ishin” was encapsulated in such slogans as Fukoku Kyohei (Rich Country Strong Army), Bunmei Kaika (Civilisation and enlightenment) and Shokusan Kogyo (Encourage industry). Such evocative slogans jolted the human spirit of Japanese people and unleashed the nationalistic fervour to build foundations of modern Japan.

Meiji Ishin was an event of such epochal proportions that it rests in the minds of ever Japanese who ever went to school. The spirit of Meiji Japan made profound impression on the mind of young Abe. As the Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, in his quest for Japanese rejuvenation, invoked the revolutionary and regenerative fervour of the Meiji era to exhort the people of Japan to remember the spirit of that era in order to overcome the crises facing the country today. “Much like our predecessors in the Meiji Era, we will again create opportunities for all Japanese people and thereby surely surmount the issue of the rapidly aging society and decreasing birth-rate,” Abe said in his speech to the Diet. “Now is precisely the time for us to create a new Japan.”

Since Abe was invoking the Meiji Spirit he must have studied the modernisation process and the role played by the leaders of the time. Being a leader from the Choshu clan, the heritage that Abe cherished the First Prime Minister and architect of the modern democratic Japan and also a prominent member of “Choshu Five”, Abe surely must have been drawn to Ito Hirobumi, for inspiration and to learn to navigate the transformation process for the new Japan that he now visualised. Known as a brilliant and influential statesman, Ito Hirobumi oversaw the modernisation process with an enlightened vision for Japan in world affairs, a vision that Abe found worth emulating. Abe was now standing as the leader of the political party that his ancestor created. Abe also learnt that the democratic transformation of Japanese polity and opening of Japan to the world were important events that strengthened the foundations of Japanese nation to find a place of honour in the community of nations. During his visit to the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) Abe was told that the “Choshu Five” (of which Ito Hirobumi was the prominent member) embodied the values of UCLA of openness, internationalisation, people to people exchanges and contributing to society. Juxtaposition of ideas like democracy, openness, internationalism helped conjure up a mental model that remained deeply embedded in Abe’s mind. Subsequently, unfolding politico-economic processes under the Taisho democracy further convinced Abe about subtle linkages between democratic processes and economic prosperity. During this period Japanese people enjoyed record breaking economic prosperity and political freedom. These values and ideas so profusely impacted his conceptualisation of ‘Broader Asia’ and the Free and Open Indo-Pacific.

An important aspect of Meiji Ishin was the rise of nationalism with distinct characteristics reflecting the mood of the nation at the time with Pan-Asianism and Anti-Westernism essentially the two sides of the same coin. Anti-Westernism soon transformed into “Go western” but Pan-Asianism that entered the Japanese political thought as a source of seeking roots of Japanese nation became a subject of intense debates and underwent multiple metamorphoses until the Second World War. As the subsequent policy pronouncements, political and diplomatic actions taken by Abe during his Prime Ministership would suggest that he subscribed to neither of these attributes in toto. Asianism forms a running thread in Japanese political thought that young Abe as a student at Seikei must have studied and come across the writings of Kita Ikki and Shumei Okawa. But as he grew up to become an active participant in Japanese politics, he found that brand of Asianism limiting and inadequate. Abe was nurturing his own vision for modern times and quietly calibrating it in line with the enlightened vision of Ito Hirobumi. Itō Hirobumi had a long term vision for Japan as a political heavyweight in Asia….a regional superpower, at par with other Western superpowers. Ito Hirobumi’s vision for Japan as leader of Asia did not envisage any physical conquest of Asia but a cooperative mechanism based on sound political economic cooperation. Nor did he visualise such an association to be anti-western rather an arrangement based on cooperation. Abe was guided by such values in formulating his vision of Broader Asia and the Free and Open Indo-Pacific.

Abe’s Vision and Broader Asia

Asia is the sheet anchor of Japanese foreign policy. Pan-Asianism in Japan first developed during the Meiji period as an idealist-culturalist movement becoming increasingly influential in politics during late Meiji and the Taishô era. In the present day Japan, Asianist thought is still an influential current, not only in discourse on Japan’s role in Asia, but also in Japanese foreign policy. Abe’s vision for Japan in world affairs particularly in the Asia-Pacific region evolved over a period of time based on his understanding of history and personal experiences as political participant in the world of real politic.

In the very first speech that he made in the U.S. after his meeting with President Barack Obama he said, “Japan is not and will never be, a tier-two country. It is high time in this age of Asian resurgence, for Japan to bear even more responsibility to promote our shared rules and values.” Abe belongs to a generation of politicians who believe that Japan must assert its own identity in international society. Abe’s chief concern was to secure a place of honour for Japan in world politics and in this context strengthening Japan’s Asian roots is critical. No leader in recent memory has so completely and profoundly transformed strategic thinking in Asia as Abe has done. However, in this quest for Japan’s position in the world affair she never thought of Japan as a conqueror of Asia nor did he imagine Asian resurgence as an anti-western stance. Cooperative pursuit of global relations was his abiding belief to re-establish and secure a place of honour for Japan. Such a vision of Asia and Japan closely corroborated with that of Ito Hirobumi, the first Prime Minister of modern Japan and a leader from the Choshu clan.

Another extraordinary element in Abe’s vision of Broader Asia is the geographical expanse that it seeks to encompass. Never in the history of Asianist debates, in pre or post war Japan, has the geographical expanse of Asia been conceived as vast as in the Broader Asia vision of Shinzo Abe. While developing his own vision of Broader Asia and especially having learnt the stories from his grandfather Kishi, Abe must have learnt about post-independence Asiatic orientation of India’s foreign policy. Asian Relations Conference (ARC) of 1947 was a landmark event in this context. Although Japan could not participate due to Allied Occupation, but its significance was never lost on the Japanese leaders. The geographical expanse of Abe’s Broader Asia roughly corresponds to the geographical expanse covered by the Asian Relations Conference. By propounding this concept of Broader Asia, Abe freed Japan’s pre-war Pan-Asianism from two obstreperous characteristics of Sino-Korea centric view of Asia and Anti-Westernism. At the same time, he confirmed his belief in the emerging global strategic structure and the role that Japan was to play. He also put to rest any speculation in certain quarters of comparing Japan’s current Asia policy with that of pre-war Asianism of Japan.

Abe and India-Japan Relations

Childhood stories deeply impact values, beliefs, attitudes, and social norms which in turn shape our adult world view and Abe heard loving stories about India in the lap of his grandfather Nobusuke Kishi who loved India. Kishi’s loving attitude towards India was shaped by several factors. His years in pre-war Japanese Government may have convinced him that Japan’s Asianism would remain incomplete without partnering with India for which Subhash Chandra Bose was seeking Japanese assistance. Radhabinod Pal’s judgement in IMTFE that absolved most of his wartime colleagues must have delighted him. Subsequently, India’s Pan-Asian foreign policy and Indian attitude towards Japan as reflected in signing the peace treaty and settlement of reparations issue must have convinced Kishi of India’s genuine concern for a fellow Asian nation and strengthened his resolve to befriend India. More importantly, his exulting experience during his visit to India was a crowning event shaping his perception of India. The fact that Nobusuke Kishi undertook his visit to India in the first year of becoming the Prime Minster reflects his resolve to befriend India. He was accorded a public reception to a thunderous applause by thousands of people where Prime Minister Nehru introduced him as that “This is the Prime Minister of Japan, a country I hold in greatest esteem.” Such adoring words and arousing reception to the leader of a defeated and demoralised nation gratified Kishi to no end.

Abe came to India filled with such exalted feelings in his heart. As he worked his way upward in Japanese politics his resolve to befriend India grew in time. Well before he became the Prime Minister he began to express his views about India. In one of the strategic planning meetings he pronounced that “one should not be surprised if Japan-India trade and economic relations surpass that between Japan and China or even Japan and the US in ten years from now.” In his interactions with India Abe recorded many firsts. He was the first and only Prime Minister of Japan to have visited India four times. Abe was the first Japanese Prime Minster to become the Chief Guest at the Republic Day parade and he was the only Japanese Prime Minister to have addressed the Indian Parliament.

Securing a place of eminence for Japan in the world affairs being upper most in his mind, Abe initiated several bold foreign policy initiatives and redefined strategic thinking on many issues. One of the most outstanding was his conception of Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) wherein India has been accorded a prominent position. Much like his grandfather, Abe undertook his visit to India in the very first year of his becoming the Prime Minster to communicate to the Indian leadership his vision of building deeper partnership with India to promote a broader alliance among the democratic countries of the region. In his first address to the Indian parliament he invoked the historical legacy of mutual attraction between the two nations and called for a partnership to form “a region to promote fundamental values such as freedom, democracy, and the respect for basic human rights as well as strategic interests.”

Each of Abe’s interactions with India has been marked by path-breaking agreements impacting India’s economic development and incremental Japanese involvement in Indian economy. Abe realized the value of aligning Japan’s economic relations with the rising Indian economy would constitute a key element in his efforts to build a dynamic, peaceful, and prosperous Asia. Although, India-Japan relations had started moving upward at the turn of the century following India’s “Look East’’ policy, the relationship took to new heights with the advent of Narendra Modi as the Prime Minister of India and his enunciation of the “Act East” policy. Two leaders were not strangers to each other and Modi matched Abe’s vision with his own to expand relations in every possible area of economic activity. Abe proposed Japan’s Expanded Partnership for Quality Infrastructure initiative, which matched with India’s Make in India mission. Abe visualized that fostering deeper economic linkages, industrial networks andconnectivity may propel joint projects in third countries strengthening his vision of prosperous and peaceful region. Much of the dynamism was added to this relationship by the personal camaraderie between the two leaders. This friendship reminded one of a relationship between Swami Vivekanand and Okakura, and Swamiji’s embrace of Okakura like “two brothers who have found each other again after coming from the opposite ends of the earth."

In building India-Japan relations the Abe era is marked by three especially important milestones.

  1. Propelled by Modi’s spontaneous and energetic response bilateral relations expanded exponentially covering almost every aspect of economy particularly focussing on large developmental and infrastructural projects. Some of the strategically significant projects initiated during the Abe era include development of Northeast and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Japan’s commitment to the Northeast is projected through the upcoming industrial township in Assam to road connectivity projects that advances quality infrastructure and links the Northeast to the regional value chains and markets of Southeast Asia. Japan is now the largest source Overseas Development Aid (ODA) and foreign direct investment.
  2. Delay in the signing of the civil nuclear deal was one of the most disconcerting issues that had troubled this relationship for many years. A resolution was made possible by Abe-Modi camaraderie. The deal removed an important hurdle in India’s entry into the much-delayed Nuclear Suppliers Group which will help ease India’s energy needs.
  3. Another remarkable outcome of Abe-Modi camaraderie was the launch of the Asia-Africa Growth Corridor (AAGC)- an economic cooperation agreement between India, Japan, and multiple African countries. An outstanding feature of this initiative is its decisively pro-people orientation. The AAGC would consist of four main components: development and cooperation projects, quality infrastructure and institutional connectivity, capacity and skill enhancement and people-to-people partnerships. All these four are complimentary elements to promote growth and all-round development in both the continents.

Abe’s absence will be missed in India, but he has left a legacy that will long endure and impact the future of India-Japan relations. India must continue to wholeheartedly embrace Abe’s vision of Broader Asia and Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP)

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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