Abe is in India at a time when a big transformation is taking place in the region's geo-politics. Japan, a nation perceived so far as a political dwarf but an economic giant, is revamping its defence, security and foreign policies, more independently than before; the rise of China, North Korea's belligerence, and fresh compulsions arising out of energy security, are the main contributory factors.
Tokyo's revised foreign policy concept has come to centre round the 'arc of freedom and prosperity', encompassing the wide region in the outer rim of the Eurasian continent -- extending from North Europe to the whole of Asia as well as Australia and New Zealand. On its part, a rising India is making efforts to play a role in Asia and the world that is commensurate with its growing strength. Its Look East policy in particular has assumed wider connotations, to cover the whole of Asia. India's stated vision now is in terms of creating an 'arc of advantage and prosperity across the Asian continent'.
Naturally, the focus of the observers is on what will happen during the visit. It is, however, felt that another matter of equal importance, particularly for India, may pertain to the personality and character of the visiting Japanese leader. In assessing the visit's final outcome, an analysis of the same could provide a useful tool.
Firstly, Shinzo Abe's political beliefs merit address. Like his predecessor Junichiro Koizumi, Abe is a conservative who stands for a nationalistic domestic approach and an assertive foreign policy and a greater role for Japan on the world stage. In the face of North Korean nuclear tests, he indicated preference for Japan developing a nuclear deterrent capability, raising fears among countries like China of a nuclear Japan emerging in future.
On Japan's wartime past, the fact that Abe was born after World War II and is the youngest post-war prime minister of Japan, provides the basis for his reluctance to show remorse, a point of continuing concern to neighbours like China and both the Koreas. Abe's new formula is for Japan building a friendly cooperative future with its neighbours. His 'Asian gateway initiative' visualises Japan as a bridge between Asia and the world, in the flow of people, goods, money and information. The 'three pillars' of Abe's foreign policy (Diet address, January 26, 2007) constitute:
- Japan-US alliance.
- Creation of an Asia contributing to global peace and stability; a mutually beneficial relationship based on common strategic interest with China, future-oriented close relationship with South Korea and economic partnership with ASEAN nations and with countries sharing fundamental values with Japan as India and Australia.
- Contributing to global peace and stability.
Abe's outstanding political lineage should be noted next. A graduate in political science from Seikei University, who subsequently studied politics at the University of Southern California, he is the son of former foreign minister Shintaro Abe, grandson of former prime minister Nobusuke Kishi (arrested as a suspected war criminal after World War II, but never charged) and grandnephew of former prime minister Eisaku Sato. This family background is undoubtedly Abe's greatest strength, helping in building up his personal charisma.
Another area where Abe displayed his skills as a diplomat pertains to Japan's ties with China and South Korea, two nations that had developed a sour relationship during Koizumi's regime. Soon after Abe assumed office in September 2006, China and South Korea were the first two countries he visited in an effort to normalise bilateral relations.
He also refrained from paying an official visit to the Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo, dedicated to the soldiers killed in war, including World War II), an issue very sensitive for China and South Korea. His tough attitude towards North Korea is also another factor which strengthened his profile within the country.
Abe's weaknesses also need highlighting. Despite his family's political background, Abe, before becoming prime minister, had held only a handful of posts including that of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party secretary general and chief cabinet secretary. He had never dealt with economic policies. His inexperience could have been one of the reasons for the eruption of high-level scandals at ministerial levels recently, resulting in the ruling LDP's losses in the Upper House election in July and the erosion of his popularity.
Another cause may relate to Abe's tactlessness in projecting economic issues before the electorate, rather than his main domestic policy platform -- changing the post-war pacifist constitution to reflect Japan's actual defence posture and the need for patriotic education. It is believed that the LDP's lack of majority in the Upper House will curtail Abe's ability to pass necessary important legislation. Abe is to go to China this autumn, and it is quite likely that China, taking advantage of his weaker domestic position, may extract concessions from him.
Abe is an admirer of India, as it is a democracy like Japan. He has called India Japan's natural ally. In his recent book, Towards a Beautiful Country, he praises India and calls for the establishment of strategic relations between Japan and India. Between India's democracy and China's opaque political system, non-military transparency in particular, Abe sides with the former. On India's nuclear programme, the Japanese prime minister had refused to compare India's case with that of North Korea.
In an overall sense, for all nations in Asia including China and India, their future relations with Japan, a country progressing in new directions, will be important in guaranteeing much-needed stability and prosperity in the region. Abe's visit to India and later to China is expected to make definite contributions in this regard; especially, New Delhi and Beijing would very much like to understand the Abe regime's personality and policies.
Foreign Secretary Shiv Shankar Menon's assurance that India's ties with Japan and China will not be a zero-sum game, has indeed provided a positive atmosphere to Abe's visit. Is Japan also thinking on the same lines? An answer may perhaps be available at the end of Abe's visit on August 23.
D S Rajan, a former director at the Cabinet Secretariat, is currently Director, Chennai Centre for China Studies.