The abrupt resignation of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on 28 August, due to the recurrence of a childhood disease, has rocked Japan. Abe set a new record as Japan’s longest serving PM. He has beaten the record of Eisaku Sato, the Japanese PM during 1964-72, by a few days. The ruling LDP is not ready for a succession. This may necessitate either a stop gap PM for a year, while the party gears up for elections scheduled in September 2021 or a proper successor may be found who will deal with current issues and lead the party into elections and possible victory in October 2021. An election can also be called early.
Abe departure means that Japan loses a safe hand on the stern. He leaves at a time when the challenge of Covid 19, the uneasy economy and relations with immediate neighbours like China, North and South Korea are unresolved. Abe, at his departing press conference on August 28, mentioned his inability to retrieve the missing Japanese from North Korea, sign a peace treaty with Russia and revise the Constitution as part of his unfulfilled legacy. His successor may not have the time nor the political strength to deal with these three issues and may become more embroiled in immediate challenges including the postponed Olympics, if the virus is uncontrolled.
Abe’s major success was his longevity which gave him the time, stature and political heft to take initiatives at home and abroad. Without that, neither Abenomics nor the Free and Open Indo Pacific (FOIP) would have been feasible.. He lent his weight to the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) despite the U.S. pulling out of it He invested in U.S. President Donald Trump and became a senior leader in the G20 (which Japan chaired in 2019) and in the East Asia Summit – positions few Japanese PMs had reached.
The engagement with India is one of his legacies. While Japan is a steadfast partner, the strategic dimension that Abe provided since 2012 is qualitatively different. His presence at the Republic Day parade in 2014 was significant. He continues the annual Summits with India and visited Ahmedabad and Varanasi with PM Modi. It was in 2007, that he first spoke about the Indo-Pacific – in the Indian Parliament. During his tenure, the Imperial Majesties visited India in 2013 for the only time so far. The Special Strategic and Global Partnership was established in 2014 and since then there has been continuous investment and a visible deepening of the bilateral.
India now receives about $4 billion of Overseas Development Assistance (ODA) from Japan per year, with high utilisation. Annual Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) inflows were $2.9 billion in 2018-19, up from $1.6 billion in 2017-18. Abe realised the need for very large projects with technology multipliers like the Mumbai-Ahmedabad bullet train, the Western Dedicated Freight Corridor, the Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor, 12 Industrial townships are ongoing. The Chennai-Bengaluru Industrial Corridor is among the ideas under discussion. Similarly, the Defence engagement, the Digital partnership, the partnership for the North East of India are part of the Abe-Modi legacy. The 2+2 dialogue between the Foreign and Defence Ministers began in November 2019. The Ministry of Economy and Trade and Industry (METI) of Japan and Ministry of Commerce and Industry (MOCI) of India also meet regularly as do other line ministers. The forthcoming engagements are to see a formalization of the Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement (ACSA) which will give the Indian and Japanese Navies cross-access to the Japanese base in Djibouti and the Indian facilities in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
These are signs of a live and confident partnership. Abe’s departure comes when the previous summit to be held in February in Guwahati, was postponed due to local uncertainties. At that time, a major initiative for the North East was to be announced. Now a virtual Summit is expected on 9 September, for which preparations are underway. It is even more important, given the Covid impact and the Chinese incursion into Ladakh. Japan was one of the countries that criticized China for its actions.
The biggest casualty of the focus to find a replacement for Abe, could be the cooperation of the Quad and the Indo Pacific since these engagements are still experimental and ongoing. It is unclear how much of Quad related policy is embedded in the Japanese system. A new Prime Minister will be more diffident. This could be a loss. If the new dispensation tries a charm offensive with China, then the outright support for India may also diminish. The India-Australia-Japan partnership for regional value chains is another new idea that may need more political support in Japan. If Japan is to join the Indo-Pacific it will need more political determination in Japan.
The high-volume ODA and the functional partnerships with India will continue. The steady inflow of new FDI which Abe wanted to startegise as part of Quad equations, will need to be carefully looked at by both India and Japan. The good news is that most planned FDI is from existing Japanese companies in India and not from relocators from China. Trade may be trickier. The chances of a review of the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) starting soon will diminish as Japan will prefer to complete the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) rather than undertake new, possibly difficult arrangements, at this time.
Dealing with a new Japanese leader will be a challenge for India as India needs his complete attention at this time and may not get it so easily due to pressing issues and the time needed for settling down. PM Modi will finally deal with a Japanese leader other than a confident Abe. That new equation will determine the pace at which Japanese partnership with India will deepen.
Gurjit Singh is a former Indian Ambassador to Germany. He is currently the Chair of the CII Task Force on the Asia Africa Growth Corridor and Professor at the IIT, Indore.
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