Millennium Post

Positive prospects

Apart from reviving Japan’s stagnant economy and altering pacifist constitution during security threats, Shinzo Abe also played a major role in boosting Indo-Japan ties

Longest-serving Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, has resigned on grounds of ill health. This has sent the Japanese stock market and other financial markets spiralling downwards.

Shinzo Abe will be remembered for his contributions to reviving Japan's stagnant economy and for altering Japan's pacifist constitution in the face of serious security threats from North Korea and then China. Indeed, Abe's term had emerged as the turning point for post-war Japan.

Abe would be especially remembered by India for his efforts at forging relations with India in the face of threats from China. He had proposed an arc of democracy in the Asia-Pacific region comprising Japan-India and Australia.

There are two distinct strands in relations between India and Japan: one is economic, and this aspect of relations between the two countries is well known and highlighted very often, but the second is defence and strategic cooperation which has become increasingly important in the event years.

Retiring Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's second term from 2012 had pivoted on this second aspect of India-Japan relations and his contributions towards strengthening this link would be considered the most seminal one in years from now.

If anything strategic and defence collaboration between the two countries looked impossible when India detonated the nuclear weapon in 1998. However, things turned around pretty fast and Japan started moving closer. By the end of the Atal Behari Vajpayee government, India and Japan had become close again.

A third force has swirled the two countries into a close loop and hastened strategic dialogues. With the rise of China and more so with its global power-talk Japan and India inescapably saw the coming danger and discovered a mutual interest in collaboration.

When China's talk of global domination turned into action, there was no other option. These developments coincided with Prime Minister Narendra Modi's second term and Prime Minister Abe's third phase in office. The informal understanding between India-Japan slowly began to expand to include Australia as well.

Japan has been seriously threatened over its island possession in East China called Senkakus in Japan and Diaoyu in China. The dispute was boiling over and China was threatening to send some boats to capture when Abe had telephoned XI Jinping to bring down the threats. However, these and several other developments had unnerved Japan.

India meanwhile was facing an irritatingly predictable behaviour from China of disregarding all accepted norms of behaviour. The disreputable behaviour of China of going back on accepted agreements, Chinese aggressiveness on the Himalayan borders showed the need for action.

Prime Minister Abe had taken the step to strengthen the "Quad" organisation for strategic cooperation among India, Japan, Australia and the United States. India had earlier had reservations about such arrangements, but now would be a strong votary in the face of Chinese untrustworthiness.

Once again, under these adverse geopolitical developments, India's naval exercises in the Indian Ocean has got a leg up with Japan, United States and Australia joining in.

Quite clearly, the defence co-operation between India and Japan during the premiership of Shinzo Abe was driven by the common fear of China. However, the role of Abe is critical in the process because he had already prepared Japan for a proactive and decisive stance in matters related to defence.

As Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had brought about a radical change in the country's perceptions about defence, its military forces and rebuilding of its capacity. Abe yanked Japan off guilt psychology post-second World War. So much so, the country did not have a proper military set up and an army, navy or air force. The vestigial armed forces it had until recently is only a self-defence one. No outside foray was even permitted.

Abe had changed all that. As a signal to the changed attitude to the armed forces, Abe was open about his visits to the Yasukuni Temple which is taken as a symbol of Japanese imperial pas and its colonial occupation in the region. His visits had provoked fierce criticisms and protests in China and the two Koreas. But these were accepted as part of the process towards Japan becoming just like another country.

One can only hope that the process started by premiere Abe would be continued by the next incumbent and the strategic collaboration between India and Japan would possibly be taken to further heights.

There are a few areas where this can go to the next stage.

Japan is facing serious and sharp demographic shrinkage. A falling population, among many other implications, has a strong bearing on defence and strategic position. Where are the people to join the armed services? Japan is seeking to partially overcome this by allowing women entry into military services. In an ultra-conservative society like Japan's, this is very difficult to achieve.

So far, women comprise only 7 per cent of Japan's armed forces. This is hoped to touch 11 per cent. When an active population is going down, a radical ramp-up of military manpower would inescapably be in competition with the civilian, particularly, industrial organisations.

A more open attitude towards immigration could have helped matters a little. But here again, Japan is extremely wary of any immigration and this attitude is unlikely to change much. But at least for some segments, like trained industrial workers or high workers, a more liberal immigration regime could come in handy. And India could be useful for that purpose.

Another way to overcome the demographic problem, at least for the defence segment, is to go increasingly for automated and artificial intelligence-driven technology. There are reports that Japan is seeking to achieve this in its defence set up.

Here India could be a willing collaborator and both countries stand to gain. India can purchase from Japan high technology-based defence items for deployment. Japan could become one of the reliable suppliers. At the same time, Japanese manufacturers can set up units in India and utilise trained manpower.

There are mutually beneficial solutions. Even for operating sophisticated autonomous drones or high tech missile defence shields very sophisticated trained manpower would be needed. This kind of quality manpower could be released when manufacturing of hardware could be outsourced to others.

Underlying all these efforts is all-important trust. Abe's tenure as the Prime Minister has shown a level of mutual confidence between the two countries. That provides at least the necessary conditions for action, though this alone is not sufficient.

Views are strictly personal

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