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The Return of Shinzo Abe as Japan’s new PM: What does it mean for India?

R S Kalha is a former Indian Ambassador to Iraq.
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  • December 19, 2012

    Shinzo Abe belongs to a distinguished family of political leaders in Japan. His father Shintaro Abe was a former Foreign Minister, and his maternal grandfather Nobusuke Kishi a former Prime Minister. Shinzo Abe himself was briefly Prime Minister from 2006 to 2007 and returns after the recent general elections with a huge majority as a leader of the Liberal Democratic Party [LDP]. He is known for his hawkish views, particularly on the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands dispute with China. Press reports quote him as saying that ‘Japan owns and controls the islands under international law. There is no room for negotiations on this point.’

    There is no doubt that after the recent events over the disputed islands the relationship between China and Japan is at the cross-roads. Fresh evidence, if any was needed, came in the figures published by the Chinese Ministry of Commerce that the volume of direct investment from Japan to China had dropped to US$ 460 million, down by nearly a third from one year ago. The currency swap arrangement between the two countries is also in limbo. The recent wave of anti-Japanese feelings in China, leading to large scale boycott of Japanese products in China, has further embittered relations. There are nearly one million Chinese employed in Japanese firms operating in China and should Japanese firms decide to scale down their operations, the livelihood of these workers would be at risk. If Shinzo Abe lives up to his campaign rhetoric, the Sino-Japanese relationship is indeed headed for troubled waters.

    Chinese strategic analysts have always believed that the main security threat to China would come from the Pacific Ocean. The US decision to ‘pivot’ its strategy to Asia has only tended to confirm their apprehensions. Even at the height of the troubles between India and China over Tibet in 1959 and subsequently over the boundary issue, the Chinese never lost sight of this fundamental fact and it remained ingrained in their strategic thought. The Chinese have never shied away from expressing their thoughts on the subject. On 16 May 1959, at the height of the troubles in Tibet, the then Chinese Ambassador visited South Block and handed over a Diplomatic Note, said to be personally drafted by Mao himself, to the then Foreign Secretary. It makes a most interesting reading. Among other things, it stated the following:

    The enemy of the Chinese people lies in the east—the US imperialists have many military bases in Taiwan, South Korea and Japan and in the Philippines which are all directed against China. China’s main attention and policy of struggle are directed to the east, to the west Pacific region, to the vicious and aggressive US imperialism and not to India….India is not an opponent but a friend of our country. China will not be so foolish to antagonize the US in the east and again to antagonize India in the west. The putting down of the rebellion….in Tibet will not in the least endanger India. You can wait and see.…This is our state policy…Our Indian friends! What is in your mind? Will not you be agreeing to our thinking regarding the view that China can only concentrate its main attention eastwards of China but not south-westward of China, nor is it necessary for it to do so….Friends! It seems to us that you too cannot have two fronts….Is it not so? If it is, here lies the meeting point of our two sides. Will you please think it over?

    Nehru did not respond in the manner that the Chinese had hoped he might have. Why he chose not to do so is also moot? Had he done so, or at the very least explored further what the Chinese had in mind, it is quite possible that the troubles over the boundary issue could have been avoided. All this is, of course, a matter of history now. Yet the fundamental fact remains that the Chinese threat perceptions even today have not changed very substantially from what was stated to Nehru in 1959. And herein lies India’s opportunity now.

    Both the United States and Japan wish for India to play a much more robust role not only in the Indian Ocean area but also in the South China Sea and beyond in the Pacific Ocean. With Japan, India’s relationship is not only moving at a brisk pace but the two Prime Ministers have decided to meet on an annual basis. India considers Japan as a strategic partner, a source of economic funding and a country that can provide significant technological and scientific up-gradation for its industrial development. Between the years 2000 to 2012, Japanese FDI into India totalled US$12.86 billion, which is about 9 per cent of the total, with Japan just behind the United Kingdom. Japanese firms operating in India provide 152,280 jobs to Indians. And above all there are no issues that bedevil the relationship. Similarly, the countries of South East Asia, such as Vietnam, the Philippines and to a lesser extent Malaysia and Indonesia, hard pressed as they are by China’s belligerent posturing, all wish India to play a much more robust role in the region. While the United States promises to provide the necessary military security in South East Asia and have also promised Japan support over the Senkaku islands in its stand-off with China, most countries in the region watch with apprehension the continuing US entanglements in the Middle East. The latest imbroglio over Syria has raised doubts whether the United States would ever be free from such entanglements. The promised pivot to Asia still seems to be largely rhetorical and so far away. Meanwhile, the shadow of a resurgent China looms ever larger. China’s economic muscle is also on full display. There are only three countries ranging from the east coast of Africa to the west coast of the United States that do not have China as their largest trading partner!

    As the opportunity presents itself, it is now time for Indian diplomacy to show what stuff it is made off. With China increasingly wary of the developments taking place on its Pacific seaboard, it would perhaps be in a much better frame of mind to listen to Indian concerns. India should not be shy of stating them, in a forthright manner, at the highest levels of the Chinese leadership. These should include the boundary issue, Chinese meddling in our neighbourhood and above all China’s destructive nuclear and military supply relationship with Pakistan that is so detrimental to Indian security. Let the Chinese also begin to re-assess the stakes involved.

    China is also clearly worried at the US ‘containment’ policy and ‘rebalancing’ to Asia. Any indication of joint naval exercises by India, Japan, the United States and Australia usually brings forth vociferous protests. Although Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has conveyed to the Chinese leadership that India will not be a part of any ‘containment’ policy, yet it does no harm to let the perception grow among the Chinese leadership that there are other options available. Similarly, it would do no harm for Japan to exponentially increase its FDI coverage into India. Should Japanese manufacturing companies presently operating in China downsize their presence there and simultaneously enlarge their presence in India, the message would have been sent loud and clear. It is for the Indian authorities now to take the decisive lead to encourage Japan and other South East Asian countries, instead of wasting valuable time in fruitless ideological debates.

    The Author is a former Secretary, Ministry of External Affairs of India.