Former Japanese Prime Minister (PM) Shinzo Abe, who was assassinated in July, was unusual in having made relations with India a topmost priority. His long tenure as Japan’s leader — almost nine years in two stints between 2006 and 2020 — witnessed a transformation in Tokyo’s ties with New Delhi, including accelerated defence and security cooperation, strategic Japanese investments in India, multilateral coordination (such as Quad), and a $75-billion bilateral currency swap agreement.
Naturally, Abe’s impact on Japan was much broader, and his efforts with India should be placed in context. On foreign policy, he consolidated the United States (US) -Japan alliance, repaired Tokyo’s ties with Australia and Southeast Asia, and made unprecedented outreach efforts to Africa and West Asia. At the same time, he failed to make much headway on territorial disputes with Russia and historical differences with South Korea. Perhaps more significantly, Abe also transformed Japan’s security profile, upgrading the defence ministry, establishing a National Security Council, accelerating the development of a defence-industrial ecosystem, and reinterpreting the Constitution to give Japanese forces more leeway in supporting allies and partners.
Economically, Abe gave an initial jolt to Japan’s monetary and fiscal policies and tried to promote women in the workforce, but his attempts at structural reforms proved incremental. Politically, he ensured the continuing primacy of his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). Abe’s assassination less than two years after stepping down as PM leaves a political vacuum that may affect the pace – if not necessarily the direction – of Japan’s future trajectory. This, in turn, has implications for Japan’s partnership with India.
Japan’s current PM Fumio Kishida, who is supported by Abe’s faction, has strongly emphasised economic security, the new buzzword in Tokyo. This has involved the passage of related legislation and the appointment of a minister to oversee economic security. In practice, this means lessening Japan’s dependence on China through smarter decoupling, strengthening cybersecurity and access to critical minerals, tightening export controls on sensitive technologies and guarding intellectual property. On national security, Kishida is likely to continue Abe’s approach of strengthening the US alliance, building up Japan’s independent strategic capabilities, increasing the defence budget, and planning seriously for Taiwan-related contingencies.
However, differences appear in Kishida and Abe’s attitudes to international diplomacy. Kishida is keen, for example, on better managing relations with China, including through high-level meetings with senior Chinese officials. Such a thaw was contemplated earlier by Abe, who had invited China’s leader Xi Jinping for a state visit, but the distinction lies in Kishida’s relative emphasis on coexistence over competition.
Another difference has emerged in attitudes towards the developed and developing worlds. Kishida has proved eager to stand by Europe and the US on the Ukraine war, and swiftly condemned Russian aggression and supported sanctions on Moscow. While this has won him plaudits in Washington and Brussels, it comes at the risk of Japanese influence in much of the developing world, where Abe had previously made significant headway.
Further political complications have arisen due to the association of certain LDP politicians with the Unification Church, a religious movement. A grudge against the Unification Church was reportedly the motivation behind Abe’s assassination. In the aftermath of those revelations, Kishida reshuffled his cabinet to sideline politicians tainted by association with the movement. The controversy had resulted in a slide in Kishida’s popularity ratings, but also marginalised some politicians seen as capable executors of Abe and Kishida’s policy agenda.
Japan’s relations with India are currently healthy but, in some respects, the proverbial glass appears only half full. On the economic front, trade between India and Japan has grown and diversified, the currency swap has proved effective, and Japanese investment is flowing to India both directly and through intermediaries such as Singapore and London. Newer aspects of economic engagement have also emerged, which is encouraging. These include green technology and the establishment of Japanese research centres in India.
At the same time, Japanese technology transfers have become more restrictive. This is motivated primarily by concerns about intellectual property theft and reverse engineering in China, but also potentially affects emerging partner countries such as India. Rather than diversifying to other foreign markets from mainland China, many Japanese companies have opted for reshoring back to Japan. Infrastructure investment also presents a mixed picture. While there has been progress on rail systems (especially metros) and highways in northeast India, Japanese companies do not play a particularly big role in India’s port and airport development.
On defence and security, military exercises such as Dharma Guardian and Malabar have become more frequent, port calls are now routine, and a logistics agreement has been operationalised. The recent JIMEX bilateral naval exercises broke new ground, and several strategic initiatives — such as on maritime domain awareness — have been subsumed under the Quad framework. Yet defence industrial cooperation, such as on unmanned ground vehicles, has been slow. Today, both sides are exploring more modest cooperation over major initiatives where their demands and capabilities do not necessarily align.
Irritants have also emerged. There was mutual finger-pointing earlier this year after India denied a Japanese military aircraft clearance to access a United Nations depot. There was also some disgruntlement in Japan concerning India’s involvement in the Vostok military exercises with Russia, given the proximity to the sensitive disputed territory.
While economic ties can be accelerated and some of the security frictions can be overcome, a major structural impediment in India-Japan ties remains people-to-people engagement. The pandemic has not helped, but the fact remains that Japan’s immigration system is rigid. A special programme for skilled workers is restricted to certain regions of India, such as the northeast, and a handful of sectors, such as nursing. Such restrictions inhibit the kind of broad-based partnership that India has been able to forge with countries in North America, Europe, and West Asia.
If India-Japan relations have achieved much, it is largely due to Abe’s efforts and the enthusiasm reciprocated by his Indian counterparts, Manmohan Singh and Narendra Modi. Not long ago — after India’s 1998 nuclear tests — Japan called upon the rest of the world to condemn India’s actions. Bilateral ties started to brighten after 2000, but only accelerated in fits and starts. The fact that relations with Japan enjoyed broad political support in India helped.
Today, the India-Japan relationship is on a qualitatively different plane. But as structural challenges make themselves felt in the relations, the biggest tribute to Abe’s legacy would be to find ways to surmount some of these hurdles.
Dhruva Jaishankar is executive director, ORF AmericaThe views expressed are personal