Dr. Jojin V. John, Research Fellow, Indian Council of World Affairs
Fumio Kishida, former Foreign Minister of Japan,
has emerged victorious in the Liberal Democratic Party’s (LDP) presidential
election held on 29
September, 2021 and has become the new Prime Minister of Japan. Kishida’s
triumph over the charismatic Taro Kono, a former defense and foreign minister
and the minister in the powerful administrative reform ministry in the Suga
cabinet, is indicative of LDP’s preference for continuity over reforms,
resistance to generational change and above all, the political reincarnation of
former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in the role of ‘shadow shogun’.
The election result also proves that Japan is
not yet ready for a female leader. However, this year’s election was an
improvement on gender
featured two women candidates out of four – former Internal Affairs Minister
SanaeTakaichi and former Communication Minister Seiko Noda.
Unlike many democracies, in Japan, it is not the
general election but the leadership election of the LDP that decides the
leadership of the country. Since its establishment in 1955, LDP had been in
power throughout except for brief periods between 1993-94 and 2009-2012.
Considering the fragile state that the Japanese opposition finds themselves in
today, for all practical purposes, it makes sense to look into the factional
debates and competition within the LDP to understand the dynamics in Japanese
The leadership election took a dramatic turn in
early September, following the surprise announcement of PM Suga, that he is not
seeking a second term. In the first round of the election in which both LDP Diet members and party
workers voted, Kishida came on top with one vote ahead of Kono, while Takaichi
and Noda came third and fourth. As no candidate could get a clear majority, the
contest went into a run-off between Kishida and Kono, during which the former
secured a clear victory.
Four important factors that will have long-term
implications for Japanese politics were at play in the election. First, the
results meant a victory for the conservative elements of the party over the
reformist. While more appealing to the public and the party workers, Kono, who
is known to be a maverick in Japanese politics, has not been the favourite of
the party’s old guard. He represented a platform that called for reform within the
party and radical change in the policy direction of the government. His support
for LGBT rights, separate surname for married couples, pension reform and
review of the nuclear energy policy is considered ‘too’ reformist even for
LDP’s moderate conservatives. On the other hand, Kishida, who stressed
stability and continuity without directly challenging the directions set by the
‘Abe/Suga administrations’ over the last decade, had no difficulty getting the
backing of party elders.
Initially, after young lawmakers of the party
rallied around free voting, it was widely anticipated that it would weaken the
power of factions, thus benefitting Kono, who is popular among the new
generation lawmakers. Therefore, Kono’s defeat also implies the limitation of
Japanese politics and the staying power of the factions led by veteran
election results highlight the political genius of Shinzo Abe and the influence
that he will command as the kingmaker in the Kishida administration going
forward. By offering his support to the hardliner Takaichi, who was considered
as an outlier in the early phase of the campaign, Abe
significantly changed the political equations. The move was critical in
stopping Kono from gaining a clear majority in the first round and pushing the
contest into a run-off.
Fourth, policy debates during the election also
reflect LDP’s shift towards a more hard-line approach on defence and national
security issues. However, Kishida, who used to call himself a ‘dove’ on foreign
and security matters, styled himself as a realist and pragmatist to woo the
party hardliners. With Kishida taking a more hawkish approach to China,
revision of the constitution and the need for Japan to acquire first-strike
capability, Kono appeared to be soft.
Kishida, who assumed power on 4 October
during an emergency session of the Diet as the 100th Prime
Minister of Japan, the immediate task is to steer the party to victory in the
lower house election scheduled for next month. This will be crucial for him to
seal his position as the party head and the prime minister for the next three
years and to forestall Japan heading into a new phase of political instability.
Hemant Adlakha, Honorary Fellow, ICS and Associate Professor, JNU
“Japan is manageable, Australia will soon fall in line;
that leaves India, which is already feeling jittery with Trump certain to never
return to the White House,” according to a recent Chinese commentary. Moreover,
how can New Delhi ride in two boats at the same time, i. e. be part of
anti-China Quad and/or “mini Asian NATO” and also remain in SCO and BRICS, some
Chinese analysts are already asking.
With the United States currently in a state of limbo, thanks to soon to be “removed” President Trump, China’s strategic affairs commentariat, it seems is having a field day throwing pins at their new found object of ridicule – India. To understand what is being suggested, a mere glance is enough at the numerous op-ed pieces in the mainstream Chinese media in the past few weeks – not even suggesting you look at the loose cannon The Global Times. The news and current affairs platform Guancha.cn alone, influential and widely read App among China’s urban, upward mobile nouveau riche, carried almost two commentaries-a-day on average on India since the signing of the much coveted Asian regional trade pact, RCEP. Recall India’s last minute dropping out of the world’s largest 15-nation Free Trade Agreement.
Interestingly, following the sudden Indian decision to
stay away from the RCEP deal, announced last year by Prime Minister Modi in
Bangkok during his 3-day visit to Thailand, the authorities in Beijing, though
surprised, but reacted suspecting India’s intentions. Some Chinese analysts
later on did draw a connection between the Bangkok announcement and the India
provoked escalation of tensions along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) – de
facto international border between India and China – in eastern Ladakh
region a few months afterwards, i.e. in April 2020. Unlike in the similar
border standoffs on several occasions in recent past, the border skirmishes in
the Galwan Valley region soon snowballed into potential heavy military
confrontation. As a result, amid accusations of belligerent aggression into
each other’s territory by both countries, India started deploying massive
military build-up along the LAC in the region.
As tensions with China along the border remained high,
some Chinese experts began to describe the deployment of additional 35,000 more
troops by India in the region as what is generally referred by scholars of
international relations a “security dilemma.” Citing Robert Jervis, the world
renowned IR theorist and former president of the American Political Science
Association (APSA), who popularized the “security dilemma” theoretical concept
whereby “actions meant to increase a state’s security can be perceived as
hostile,” the Shanghai Institute of International Studies (SIIS) researcher Li
Hongmei wrote in a widely debated article: “For quite some time now, India has
been implementing a policy of ‘encroachment’ and ‘nibbling’ toward the Chinese
side of the LAC.” Li went on to say: “India’s purpose is to unilaterally alter
the status quo of the border by blurring the LAC.”
Most other Chinese commentators have attributed India’s
this new-found audacity to militarily challenge China in the increasing defence
and political backing India has been “offered” from the US, Japan and
Australia. Moreover, the Chinese analysts believe the so-called US-led Western
seducing of New Delhi (against China) will remain unabated under the president-elect
Will India continue to get a “free ride” under President Biden? Will Biden aggressively push Indo Pacific strategy? Will Biden administration lead or promote a comprehensive US-led Western anti-China “united front”? Will US continue to “seduce” India? In geostrategic terms, India needs the United States more in order to thwart off China threat, but will India “retreat” if Sino-US relations show signs of easing up under Biden? These and many more “ifs” and “buts” are currently confronting both China’s US experts and India specialists respectively. Apparently, a “determined” India is becoming a dilemma to most Chinese experts.
Further, even if the President-elect’s top six foreign
policy picks are those who served in Obama administration and when Biden was
the Vice President, at least some Chinese observers are unwilling to dismiss
Joe Biden as mere “old oil fritter.” “Biden was elected as a Senator at the age
of 30. He has been in Washington politics for almost 50 years. He has served as
the Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and Chairman of Committee on
Foreign Relations respectively. He was the US vice president for two consecutive
terms in the Obama administration. He is aware of the bipartisan consensus in
the US Congress on China policy. Unlike Trump, Biden is too sophisticated and
elegant to be unrealistic in completely reversing the previous administrations’
“anti-China policy,” is how Wu Zhifeng characterized Joe Biden in an article on
the day the US media declared the vice president as the US president-elect.
Wu, a lead researcher at the China’s National Development
Bank, pitched for Biden adopting a concerted policy to “tame” China, in a
special column he wrote for China’s financial daily, 21st Century
Business Herald (Ershiyi sheji jingji). “The Biden government will
gradually return to organizations that the US withdrew from. This, in order to
strengthen the US leadership position in the international organizations on one
hand, and to repair the damaged relationship with the US allies caused by the
Trump administration on the other,” Wu wrote. According to Wu, on the trade
front, while the new US administration will quickly return to the erstwhile
TPP, or now Japan-led CPTPP, at the same time it will also strive to revive the
TTIP with Europe.
Echoing similar sentiments, another Chinese analyst’s view led to a new debate among China’s strategic community circles, that is, the Biden administration will strive hard to convince Japan, Australia, South Korea and other staunch US allies to delay the implementation of the recently signed the world’s largest free-trade agreement RCEP. “If successful,” the scholar observed, “this move combined with twin revival of the trans-Pacific TPP and trans Western Pacific TTIP, is sure to achieve the ultimate goal of squeezing from all sides China’s economic and trade relations with the world.”
No wonder, following the success of India-initiated
Malabar joint military exercise with participation from the other three QUAD
members – the US, Japan and Australia, several IR scholars in China have now
realistically acknowledged the existence of the Quadrilateral Security
Dialogue, at least militarily if not politically. A recent article in the
Chinese language Chongqing Morning Post, entitled “Has anti-China ‘mini Asian
NATO’ really arrived? An essential move in US-Japan-Australia-India military
cooperation,” seems to suggest likewise.
Moreover, it is quite evident from several commentaries
in the Chinese media, especially in past few weeks, that Biden administration
is generally expected to continue with Trump’s China policy; that Biden
administration aims to put China under mounting political as well as economic
pressure; that Biden administration is not going to reverse or dilute the
previous US administration’s efforts in seeking the emergence of a “mini Asian
NATO” directed against China; that Biden administration will pursue allies in
the Pacific Rim region to carry out a concerted “contain” China policy by
combining together “TTP-TTIP-Pivot to Asia Policy-Indo Pacific Strategy.”
To sum up, perhaps it is this never-seen-before Indian
“resolve” to risk enter “anti-China” US-led political and military alliances
which is touching a nerve in the Chinese psyche. Or, it may well be that
Beijing is feeling rattled by the near consensus arrived at by the Indian
political elite in the wake of last year in mid-June Galwan “massacre” leaving
20 Indian soldiers brutally killed. Add to this China’s stubborn refusal
to return to status quo ante in Ladakh which led India to
admit, relations with “expansionist” China have reached an inflection point and
that India must teach its northern neighbour “a good lesson.”
This year China will be celebrating the CPC centenary.
Beijing would not like to see military conflict with India, or with any other
country, escalate amid the Party’s hundredth birthday celebrations. It is no
surprise some scholars in China are already advocating “desperate measures” to
prevent India from joining QUAD or “mini Asian NATO,” i.e., Beijing should
seriously consider expelling India from either SCO or BRICS, or from both.
Hemant Adlakha, Honorary Fellow, ICS and Associate Professor, JNU
6 October, 2020, the world’s attention was focused on the rare in-person Quad
foreign ministers’ meet in Tokyo. But some Chinese commentators were closely
watching India’s External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar and New
Pompeo with Jaishankar in
was expected, not “Japan’s ‘Trump Whisperer’,” the Foreign Minister Toshitmitsu
Motegi, but the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called the shots in Tokyo
during the Quad second ministerial talks. But some Chinese observers, as also
the Chinese Foreign Ministry mandarins, had their eyes and ears set on the
Indian EAM Jaishankar and on the outcome of his separate meeting with Pompeo.
For as the US presidential election voting day draws closer, Pompeo’s Mission Tokyo was to use the
Quadrilateral Dialogue – President Trump’s key to realizing the Indo-Pacific
strategy – to remind its allies in the region to step up putting pressure on Beijing,
some Chinese commentaries observed days before the curtain went up for the Quad
foreign ministers’ talks. “The
[Tokyo] meeting is set to be one of the highest-profile diplomatic gatherings
for the Trump administration before the US presidential election, where policy
toward Beijing has become a major campaign issue,” The Washington Post had
stated just before the Quad meeting in Tokyo.
However, some Western strategic and security affairs critics of Trump’s foreign policy have ridiculed the President by saying he has been brandishing the term “Indo Pacific” as the US “latest toy” to checkmate a rapidly rising China. They are also quick in pointing out “Indo Pacific” is the alternative grouping Trump has found to replace his predecessor Obama’s TPP in the Asia Pacific region in which China has been excluded. While not quite subscribing to the views of the critics of “Indo Pacific” strategy, at least one Chinese analyst perceives “Indo Pacific” to be a “brilliant concept but difficult to implement.”
in Beijing’s view, India’s recent change in stance on QUAD from being a
“geographical concept” to “good mechanism” in Asia Pacific has provided enough
dynamism to the US “Indo Pacific” concept to revive up its China containment
policy. Quite in tune with what at least some scholars in China have been
telling us, a US commentator recently wrote of both Indo Pacific concept and
Quad security dialogue: “QUAD was served up to spice up (the Indo Pacific)
alphabet soup, as a new strategy to slow, if not thwart, China’s rise as the
predominant economic powerhouse in Asia Pacific.”
example, Zhang Jie, a senior researcher at the China Academy of Social Sciences
(CASS) in Beijing strongly believes the transition from “Asia-Pacific” to
“Indo-Pacific” is a prominent feature of Quadrilateral Security Mechanism
dialogue. This trend highlights the importance of the Indian Ocean, the
increasing connection between the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean and the
increasing weight of India in the world, Zhang recently observed in his widely
read article in Guangming Daily –
China’s most influential newspaper among the urban intelligentsia.
explains, in spite of the fact that Pompeo had told reporters before leaving
for Tokyo the outcome of the talks will not be made public until after he gets
a nod from the POTUS on his return to Washington, why China’s strategic affairs
community was closely watching the Indian EAM Dr. Jaishankar’s tête-à-tête with Pompeo during the QUAD Tokyo Forum.
Primarily due to India making a significant shift during past six months from what
Prime Minister Modi had asserted at the Shangri La Security Dialogue in 2018
that “Indo-Pacific is not a strategy or a club of limited members” to New
Delhi’s reticence today on the militarization of Quad.
Highlighting the fact, an Indian national English language daily, The Hindu in its editorial on the eve of the Tokyo talks cited the country’s powerful Chief of Defense Staff (CDS) – believed to be close to PM Modi – as having stated “India believes the Quad would be a good mechanism to ensure Freedom of Navigation Operations in the Indian Ocean and surrounding oceans including the Indo Pacific.”
“Quad” – Background and Past Trajectory
a handful of commentators first explained the origin of the US, Japan, India
and Australia quadrilateral grouping at the initiative of Prime Minister Abe at
the ASEAN Regional Forum in Manila in May 2007, when Abe advocated the “Broader
East Asia” or “Greater Asia” concept. They also pointed out the US multilateral
security interaction was launched following a series of bilateral and trilateral
meetings between and among the present-day Quad four countries. But due to
several uncertainties then prevailing both in some of the Quad countries and
also in the world, the “Greater Asia” concept along with the US, Japan, India
and Australia security grouping – also dubbed by some in Beijing as the “Asian
NATO,” failed to see the light of day.
In the words of widely respected Professor Zhang Li of Academy of Ocean of China (AOC), some key factors which led to premature death of the so-called Quad or the Asian NATO were, namely Abe’s sudden resignation on health grounds, the refusal of the then newly elected Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd of the Labour Party to join any multilateral grouping targeting China and the impending global financial crisis. Besides, Zhang Li also attributes full credit to the “alert” Chinese diplomacy in sounding death knell for the quadrilateral security grouping when Rudd visited Beijing soon after he assumed the post of Australian Prime Minister in late 2007 and unilaterally declared withdrawal of Australia from the quadrilateral security dialogue.
From Quad to Quad 2.0 – India a Key Factor since
of whatever happened to the fate of Quad 1.0 and contrary to what is generally
believed both in India and among strategic affairs community in the US, Japan
and Australia, Beijing has been closely monitoring India’s growing importance
in quadrilateral security dialogue for over a decade and a half now. According
to Professor Cu Caiyun of Institute of Asia Pacific and Global Strategic
Research at the Beijing’s prestigious China Academy of Social Sciences (CASS),
with the rapid and powerful rise of China since the unfolding of the 21st
century, the US, Japan, India and Australia have drawn closer to each other.
“Held together by the outdated Cold War mentality of yesteryears, the four nations have been sticking together under the so-called bogey of common values and have formed groupings such as Democratic Alliance or a quasi-alliance with a singular aim to carry out their China containment design,” Professor Caiyun recently wrote in a widely influential research paper. Interestingly, Caiyun’s paper, entitled “A Rising China and Formation of Four Nation Democratic Alliance comprising of the US, Japan, Australia and India” was not published in the CASS journal, but it appeared in the flagship bimonthly Global Review of the Shanghai Institute of International Studies (SIIS) – both SIIS and GR enjoy a good rapport with the central authorities in Beijing.
Quad 2.0 – “Beggar’s Club” and Empty Rhetoric
Dismissive of President Trump’s initial desperate efforts to revive Quadrilateral Security Mechanism three years ago, scholars in China had called Trump’s “anti-China” move as “a meeting of four poor beggars” in the Indo-Pacific region. Long Kaifeng, a former PLA navy senior officer who now writes syndicated columns on military affairs, points out several inherent contradictions in Quad’s conceptual framework. First, the “negative” premise on which the concept is conceived, that is to treat China as an antithesis or an imaginary enemy. Second, the US alone does not have the wherewithal to carry out its China containment policy. This is because within Quad, it is only the US which thinks it is in its national interest to implement China containment policy. Third, closely linked to the second factor above, it is true that Japan, Australia and India (notwithstanding ongoing border tension between India and China), given their respective economic compulsions, are least willing to or prepared for directly confronting China.
aware of what China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi told Japan’s national
broadcaster NHK last week (the NHK reported a possibility that Wang Yi may also
visit Tokyo this month): Quad is a “headline-grabbing idea,” Professor Wang
Zheng of Dr. Sun Yat-sen University in Canton, unlike most other Chinese
analysts, scornfully dismissed the Quad grouping as “empty rhetoric.” With
sarcasm in tone, Wang Zheng recently wrote: “Let the four countries first come
up with their top leaders’ summit meeting or set up an institutional
scholars in China are confident that in the post COVID world, the continuing
decline of the United States – both economically and as the world’s dominant
power – is inexorable. Hence, Beijing is in no doubt, Washington’s China
containment policy is in need of New Wine in a New Bottle. Meanwhile, the
Indian EAM Jaishankar’s remarks after the Quad talks in Tokyo that “it’s a
matter of satisfaction that Indo-Pacific concept has gained increasingly wider
acceptance” might have only further strengthened what the Chinese scholars have
maintained all these years. Therefore, Beijing was least amused in what was one
of India’s several “independent” TV news channels’ lead headlines hours before
the Tokyo talks: “Quad FMs Meet in Tokyo as India Looks to Unite Allies against Aggressive China.” Undeterred,
Beijing continues to closely watch which way Quad headwinds will be blowing in
the Indian capital!
Shamshad A. Khan, Visiting Associate Fellow, ICS, New Delhi and Assistant Professor, Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, BITS Pilani Dubai Campus.
Weeks before a scheduled virtual India-Japan summit meeting, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s announcement to step down from the office citing his deteriorating health, have been received as a surprise and shock in India. As the ruling Liberal Democratic Party is engaged in electing Abe’s successor, it is unlikely that the meeting will be held on scheduled time. Ministry of External Affairs is also non-committal about the scheduled meeting. Irrespective of the cancellation of virtual summit meeting, Abe’s absence will be felt in India and especially the Indian strategic circles for a long time to come even though his departure is unlikely to derail the bilateral engagement process.
When it comes to India-Japan relations, Abe is regarded very high among the Indian strategic circles and media for strengthening the bilateral relationship. Undoubtedly, Abe has played a leading role in strengthening India-Japan relations during his previous short stint which ended in 2007 and during the present term which started in December 2012. He attached special importance to India-Japan relations much before he assumed the top post. While he was still serving as a Japanese Cabinet Secretary during Junichiro Koizumi’s regime, he envisioned in his most talked about book “Towards a Beautiful Japan” that in the coming decades India-Japan relationship will “overtake” Japan-US and Japan-China relations. He had developed deep emotional connect with India as we witnessed that New Delhi figured prominently in almost all his key policy strategies starting from confluence of the two Seas, (now evolved as Indo-Pacific) Asia’s Democratic Security Diamond and the Quadrilateral Initiatives envisioned in 2007 and revived in 2013. Why India was so special to Abe? Tomohiko Taniguchi an advisor to the prime minister and an speech writer for Abe once told this author that Abe spent his childhood with his maternal grandfather Kishi Nobusuke who held India in high esteem shared his memories of his India’s visit to Abe especially how India treated him when he visited India on his first overseas visit in 1957.
Indian Prime Minister Nehru offered Kishi Nobusuke a big platform to address a large gathering of Indian audience from the rampart of the historic Red Fort from where only the Indian Prime Ministers address to the nation on every Independence Day. At that time, the memory of Imperial Japan was afresh among the Asian countries and no Asian country was keen to give such a platform to a Japanese leader and Kishi Nobusuke was moved by this gesture offered by the Indian leadership. In a speech delivered at New Delhi based Indian Council of World Affairs in 2011, Abe noted that his grandfather’s visit to New Delhi before embarking on a US trip provided him much needed “political capital” to bargain with America with whom Kishi was going to renegotiate the revision of US Japan security treaty. While the Cold War politics dampened the chances of fostering a closer cooperation between India and Japan, Abe driven by the emotional connect and compelled by the strategic needs saw India as an inalienable partner in Japan’s National Security Strategies and Defense planning. Japan’s first National Security Strategy unveiled during Abe’s second term in September 2013 noted India’s ascendance and considered it as an important player to strengthen its relations “in a broad range of fields, including maritime security, through joint training and exercises as well as joint implementation of international peace cooperation activities.” Considering the fact that from Kishi to Koizumi, America was considered ‘first, second and third’ important country for Japan, the special importance Japan acceded to India during Abe’s period was considered as Japan’s acceptance of India as an important partner.
Abe, indeed, invested his energy to strengthen India-Japan relations when he assumed office after Koizumi left the scene soon after signing the bilateral Strategic Partnership in 2006 which gave much needed institutional backing to Japan’s relationship with the south Asian country. But he could not leave a mark on the bilateral relationship during his first stint as Abe held only one summit level interaction with the then Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. In his second term in office, India-Japan relations progressed in a faster pace as Abe held seven summit level interactions with his Indian counterparts- two with Manmohan Singh and five with Narendra Modi. At the bilateral level, signing of the long pending India-Japan civil nuclear cooperation agreement, upgrading the ‘two plus two’ strategic dialogue to ministerial level, an annual Maritime Affairs Dialogue, an in principle agreement on Acquisition of Cross Services Agreement which will give a fillip to bilateral defense cooperation, signing the contract to lay first Shinkansen project between Mumbai and Ahmedabad and upgrading the currency swap agreement to 75 billion US dollar are a few agreement during his last tenure which will be remembered as Abe’s legacy on India-Japan relations. At the multilateral level he pushed for a greater cooperation with India by identifying New Delhi as an important partner including in Asia Africa Growth Corridor, Indo-Pacific, UN Security Council reform
Since Abe has left a deep imprint on India-Japan relations, it is quite natural that Indian media and New Delhi is missing his presence and is speculating the fate of India-Japan relationship post Abe. In the past, similar concerns also came to the fore in 2009 from the Indian strategic circles, when Japan was undergoing a regime change and in Japan in 2014 when change of government was certain in India. Since the Liberal Democratic Party which has forged the strategic partnership with India in 2006 lost power to the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ)-a party which sought to forge an equidistant security relationship between the US and China, it was believed that India-Japan relationship will be derailed. For those who believed that India-Japan relationship is a byproduct of a burgeoning US-India relations post Indo-US nuclear deal, it was quite natural to believe so. But belying those speculations, the DPJ showed keen interest in taking the bilateral relationship forward. In fact, the negotiation on the civil nuclear cooperation agreement started during the DPJ regime and a landmark Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement to uplift abysmal bilateral trade volume was signed. Similarly, when Manmohan Singh who is considered as an architect of modern India-Japan relations had various official meetings with Japanese government in the capacity of Finance Minister and Prime Minister of India, questions were raised about the fate of India-Japan relationship post Manmohan Singh. But the ruling Bhartiya Janata party continued the momentum in the bilateral ties and deepened it further. This is enough to suggest that India-Japan relationship enjoys a bi-partisan support both in India and Japan and will remain immune to the political changes at the domestic levels. Moreover, India-Japan relationship is no more personality driven as was the case during the Cold War period.
The bilateral relationship is much more “institutionalised” as both the countries have made a commitment in 2006 strategic partnership to hold a prime ministerial level meeting annually and it is evident that the change of government has not had any negative impact on the bilateral relationship. In addition to this, India-Japan relationship, thanks to the strategic partnership, is much more diverse. Apart from the bilateral level dialogues, they are engaged in various multi-lateral dialogues including on UN Security reforms, a quadrilateral dialogue involving US and Australia and two prominent trilaterals- JIA consisting of Japan, India and Australia and JAI-consisting of Japan, America and India. These bilaterals and multilaterals will continue to bind Japan and India together.
Moreover, most of the probable successors of Abe including Fumio Kishida, Shigeru Ishiba, Taro Kono, Toshimitsu Motegi and the top contender Yoshihide Suga have dealt with India in different ministerial capacities and India is no stranger to them. Even though Abe’s absence may be felt in India, Japan’s economic and strategic interest in India and the need to strengthen strategic partnership amid assertive China will not let the bilateral relationship go off the track.
Hemant Adlakha, Honorary Fellow, ICS and Associate Professor, JNU
Abstract: Experts in Beijing believe Abe got caught up in the unending hostility between Japan’s key ally, the U.S. and China, its largest trading partner — just like in 2007
Japan’s Prime Minister Abe Shinzo, considered a strong leader in several foreign capitals, including Beijing, abruptly announced last Friday that he is resigning for health reasons. But writing for the New York Times last Sunday, a leading political scientist in Japan, Koichi Nakano, did not believe a relapse of ulcerative colitis was the only reason why Abe abruptly announced his decision to quit.
Like Nakano, most analysts both at home and abroad have cited multiple factors preventing Abe from extending his record as Japan’s longest serving prime minister – seven years and eight months, to date. At the time of Abe’s “surprise” announcement, his disapproval ratings stood at 34 percent, the highest ever during his record tenure. Among the most prominent reasons for his rising unpopularity include a negative view of Abe’s response to the pandemic and allegations of a series of scandals and controversies he is still mired in – including extravagant, lavish events such as “the cherry blossom viewing party” that the prime minister hosts every year but is paid for by taxpayer money. Other factors behind his dropping popularity include: a dismal failure in rebuilding the Japanese economy as promised by his signature “Abenomics”; the controversial re-militarization of Japan, which saw massive street protests by the anti-war Japanese people; and last but not least the ill-conceived “Abenomasks” policy, under which each household was promised two washable cloth masks – the plan not only irritated the people but was immediately dismissed as “useless” and “inefficient.” The endless list of the Abe government’s failures goes on and on, analysts are telling us.
Interestingly, neither Japanese experts nor Japan watchers in the West have seen a possible connection between the prime minister’s resignation and the worsening U.S.-China rivalry. On the other hand, as the South China Morning Post put it, Abe’s “eight-year spell in office saw several ups and downs in Japan’s relations with Beijing, the most recent being the straining of ties between Tokyo and Beijing due to the introduction of a national security law in Hong Kong earlier this year.”
To be fair, some analysts in Japan haven’t lost sight of the predicament Japan finds itself in: The country continues to depend on China economically while remaining dependent on the United States for security. “Aligning with the U.S., but at the same time maintaining functioning relations with China, is Japan’s top priority…this will not change,” Michito Tsuruoka, associate professor at Keito University in Tokyo, told SCMP on the day Abe announced his decision to step down.
The authorities in Beijing have refused to react to political developments in Japan, preferring to maintain a stoic silence — even while knowing full well the implications of a new leader in Tokyo. Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian declined to comment both on Abe’s resignation and on the leadership succession.
Chinese experts, however, have not only been forthcoming but even voiced differing opinions.
Liu Jiangyong, a Japanese affairs expert at the Tsinghua University in Beijing sees a “friendlier” post-Abe Japan. But Liu does not rule out continuation of the current Abe government’s foreign policy approach of trying to maintain a balance between Beijing and Washington in the event of U.S. President Donald Trump winning a second term. “If Trump wins and continues his aggressive policies with China, Sino-Japanese relations would be affected because Japan is, after all a key ally to the U.S. but Joe Biden may adopt a less extreme approach to Beijing,” Liu told SCMP.
Some Chinese scholars have been more appreciative of Japan’s mature approach toward Beijing under Abe in recent years, be it in the context of the two East Asian neighbors’ territorial dispute in the East China Sea — where Tokyo is not keen on starting a direct conflict with Beijing — or more recently, in tackling tensions with China over the COVID-19 pandemic and over Beijing’s imposition of a national security law in Hong Kong. “His [Abe’s] policy is one that emphasizes being both realistic and pragmatic,” according to Huang Dahui, an IR expert with Renmin University in Beijing.
Sima Nan, the stage name of a well-known nationalistic commentator, on Monday displayed a more hard-line approach toward Abe’s Japan. Sima dismissed a Keito University professor’s predictions about Japanese policies toward America and China in the post-Abe era as untenable. Overall, the take sounded like a warning to whoever is going to succeed Abe: “If you wish to reap China’s economic benefits, but at the same time you do not wish to sin against both China and America, this will no longer be possible in the face of the irreversible worsening U.S.-China bilateral relations.”
In 2007, Abe resigned for the first time from the prime minister position. Then, as now, the mainstream media both in Japan and in the West cited the following reasons for the fall of the government: Abe’s failing health, his controversy-plagued government, which foundered on scandals and gaffes, Japan’s decision to continue its military’s participation in the Afghanistan war, and most of all Abe’s rising unpopularity. In China, on the contrary, it was widely believed that a significant factor leading to Abe’s resignation in 2007 was his failure to maintain a perfect balance in Tokyo’s relations with the United States and China. Abe, who had just become prime minister, actually wanted to revive the fledgling Japanese economy by developing good relations with China and at the same time he wanted to establish a China-Japan-South Korea free trade area. Unfortunately for Abe, the United States found this to be against its national interest.
Abe proved to be wiser as he began his second tenure as Japan’s prime minister in 2012, Chinese Japan watchers say. He won former U.S. President Barack Obama’s confidence in Japan as a reliable ally committed to free trade and a stronger military ally in the Asia-Pacific region. Notably, Abe and Obama reached an agreement that would extend Japan’s ability to come to the defense of the United States. However, with the change of guard in the White House following the Trump victory in 2016, Abe’s policy of wooing the United States faced a huge challenge. And now as the worsening U.S.-China rivalry is accelerating, Abe has fallen sick once again.
In the words of veteran “leftist” Chinese foreign affairs observer Zhang Zhimin, if U.S.-China relations today were at the same level as before Trump launched the trade war or even before the outbreak of COVID-19, it would have been okay for Japan to still dabble with both parties. But now Japan is caught in a dilemma of having to choose between China and the United States. No wonder, Zhang uses the famous Chinese saying “one cannot have fish and bear’s paws at the same time” to describe Abe and Japan’s predicament. The saying actually means that in order to get something, one must sacrifice something.
In other words, what Zhang is implying is that Abe’s timing to resign both times has been perfect. And both times, his resigning in the middle of worsening U.S.-China tensions was not a coincidence.