The Abe diplomacy

Updated On: Aug 24, 2007

Fresh from electoral defeat and steadfast refusal to step down from power, Prime Minister Abe of Japan went on a whirlwind tour of East Asia to raise his international profile.

Western media has been keen to focus on Abe’s trip which is said to take place with the purpose of forging new relationships to either contain China or counter its rising power. This seems to be a carry-over from May 2006’s meeting in Manila where officials from AustraliaJapan and the US met for the first time with India at the table, to nurture a strategic dialogue or what some would label a new quadrilateral defence relationship. In September 2007, India will be hosting a large-scale naval exercise in the Bay of Bengal with ships from Australia, the US and Japan.

More specifically, Japan and India have signed onto a 37-point programme that envisages cooperation in sea lane security, defence exchanges and regular meetings of their navies. With vital interests in the security of sea lanes, Abe proclaimed: 'Let us together bear this weighty responsibility that has been entrusted to us, by joining forces with like-minded countries'.

The core conceptual bonding between Japan, India, Australia and Washington is the formation of a democratic club that was based on shared values of freedom, democracy, respect for human rights 'as well as strategic interests'.  Abe in his address to the Indian Parliament called for the creation of an “Asian arc of freedom” which excludes China.  He elaborated: 'By Japan and India coming together in this way, this 'broader Asia' will evolve into an immense network spanning the entirety of the Pacific Ocean, incorporating the United States of America and Australia…Open and transparent, this network will allow people, goods, capital and knowledge to flow freely.'

If an alliance were to form amongst the democratic powers, Japan might be a natural nucleus since with its annual budget of around $42 billion is the sixth largest in the world and it is in a stage of expansion. Iwakuni base, for example, a main Japanese air force base through World War II, is in the midst of a $1.9 billion expansion program, paid for by the Japanese government. Iwakuni is within striking distance ofBeijingPyongyang or Taipei. Its hangars are filled with support craft like the MH-53, which sweeps for mines, and the US-1A, a giant propeller-powered flying boat used for sea rescues.

Japanese naval power is on display in other ways, for example, an SDF exercise in October 2006 involved nearly 50 warships and 8,000 sailors in Sagami Bay (south of Tokyo). Japan’s military budget is still likely to hover around 1% of Japan’s massive GDP, or about US$41 billion this year. China with a much larger area to defend and more soldiers to maintain will officially hit a projected US$36 billion in 2007.

Japan’s courtship of India as a strategic partner also seems to be logical. Industrially, Japanese and other automakers view India as a potential manufacturing center that could offer lower labor costs thanChina. 'After the Asian financial crisis much of Japanese investment interest moved out of South-east Asia to China,' said a senior Japanese official, who asked not to be named. 'Today, it is moving to India.'

Militarily, India is also in the midst of a naval expansion into Africa and the Indian Ocean. It has a new monitoring station in Madagascar which surveys the southwestern Indian Ocean, providing intelligence for Mumbai and Kochi on India's west coast which are headquarters of the Indian Navy's Western and Southern Commands. The Indian Navy took charge of Mozambique's naval security during the African Union summit in 2003 and the World Economic Forum summit in 2004. The Indian Navy has patrolled waters off Mauritius a few times.

In Mozambique, India signed a memorandum of understanding that will see Indian maritime patrolling of the waters off the latter's coast, supplies of military equipment, training personnel, and transfers of technical knowledge in assembling and repairing military vehicles, aircraft and ships. The navies of IndiaSingapore, the United StatesJapan and Australia have also participated in a huge naval exercise in theBay of Bengal and in the Gulf of Oman, the Gulf of Aden and the Arabian Sea with such countries as OmanIran and France.

Both India and Japan are also constructing aircraft carriers. Japan’s two carriers are due for service in 2008/9 and, to show off its naval might, India is refurbishing a Russian aircraft carrier and constructing a 37,500-ton aircraft carrier at the Cochin Shipyard on its west coast. These two Indian carriers will be added on to its existing one, the 50-year old INS Viraat that underwent a major refit in the Cochin Shipyard from 1999 to 2001 with upgrades to its propulsion systems, its radar suite, communications systems, and weapon systems.

The INS Viraat has been on tours to several ports in Southeast Asia, the backyard and playground for big power displays for both India and Northeast Asian powers like Japan and ChinaIndia is looking to induct a fourth aircraft carrier by 2017 as Defense Minister A K Antony indicated in May 2007 that it would be activated only after construction of the indigenous vessel progresses "beyond a certain range".

However, India may also very well be the weak link in the quadrilateral defence alliance as it has repeatedly and publicly announced that it does not want to be associated with a containment policy with regards to China. Indian Foreign Secretary Shiv Shankar Menon warned on Monday against a 'zero sum game' with ChinaChina is emerging as India’s largest trading partner. In addition, Indian nationalism and expansionist power sees its sphere of influence extended all the ways to the Western shores of Australia. This may not go down well with its quadrilateral allies.

Japan is also cautious and reserved in some aspects of its nuclear diplomacy with IndiaTokyo did not announce an unequivocal endorsement of New Delhi's bid to gain access to the international nuclear energy trade, something that the Indians badly wanted. Japan is a key member of the 45-member Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). Previously, Indian PM Singh had announced: 'I sincerely hope that we will have Japan's support in the NSG'. Abe said that while he appreciated India's thirst for energy security, he said that it would study the implications of such an arrangement. Mr Abe said: 'It is essential for Indiato address these concerns appropriately in its negotiations with IAEA.'

In addition, Abe’s Indian diplomacy may also irked some in Washington as his Indian tour included a visit to meet relatives of the founder of the Indian National Army (INA), 'Netaji' Subhas Chandra Bose, who advocated violent resistance and fought against the Allies alongside Japanese forces in eastern India and in Myanmar during WWII. Mr Abe also met the son of Judge Radhabinod Pal, the Bengali judge on the 1946 Tokyo war crimes tribunal, who was an ardent admirer of 'Netaji' and was the only judge on the tribunal to absolve Japan of any responsibility for starting the Pacific War. There are memorials to Judge Pal at the Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo and the new auditorium of the Defence Ministry in Tokyo. Judge Pal was awarded the highest Imperial honour at the instigation of Mr Abe's maternal grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi.

Prior to his India visit, Abe also visited the biggest Southeast Asian country, Indonesia.  Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and Shinzo Abe signed the Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) in what was Indonesia's first bilateral free trade agreement. Indonesia seems to be ready to reap tremendous benefits from this deal as she is allowed to send semi-professional workers to Japan under the EPA and will benefit from Japan's technical assistance. The economic pact that Indonesia signed with Japan is widely seen as a trade-for-energy deal to help resource-hungry Japan secure energy supplies.

"Export market to Japan will increase for certain, because tariffs on many commodities will be cut to zero," Indonesian Trade Minister Mari Elka Pengestu said. The Japanese made it very clear that a stable supply of liquefied natural gas (LNG) would be the foundation for cooperation. Understanding that it is leveraging its natural resources for Japanese economic tutelage, Indonesia is hopeful that East Asia’s economic superpower will invest in its energy sector.

"In the energy sector, Japan has always bought from us but never invested. We need them to invest, to ensure security of supply," Mari said. Indonesian state oil firm Pertamina signed a US$1 billion (S$1.53 billion) deal with Mitsubishi Corp to build an LNG plant on Sulawesi to meet Japanese energy needs. Marubeni Corp signed a contract with Indonesia’s state-run power firm to supply electricity in western Java, including Jakarta, for 30 years. The EPA will also set up a system for Japan to accept Indonesian nurses and caretakers.  (24 August 2007)


Abe risks backlash by praising two Indian supporters of Japan in WWII (Straits Times, 24 August 2007)

Abe calls for “arc of freedom” (Today, 23 August 2007)

JapanIndia lay out path to strategic partnership (Straits Times, 23 August 2007)

Abe's grand plan: An Asian democracy club (Straits Times, 23 August 2007)

Economic pact with Japan a landmark for Indonesia (Straits Times, 23 August 2007)

Indonesia in high hopes from free trade deal with Japan (Xinhua, 22 August 2007)

Will Japan follow India on the nuclear road? (Straits Times, 22 August 2007)

Japan's Stealthy Military (TIME, 22 August 2007)

Indonesia inks landmark trade pact with Japan (Straits Times, 21 August 2007)

Japanese premier arrives in India   (Japan Times, 21 August 2007)

Japan inks EPA with Indonesia focusing on stable supply of LNG (Asahi, 21 August 2007)

ENERGY: Marubeni signs Indonesia power deal (Asahi, 21 August 2007)

India's blue water dreams may have to wait (Asia Times, 21 August 2007)

Japan seeks wider defence network (BBC, 21 August 2007)

Abe and Indonesia's Yudhoyono sign FTA (Japan Times, 21 August 2007)

Abe heads out to visit IndonesiaIndiaMalaysia (Japan Times, 20 August 2007)

IndonesiaJapan ink free trade pact (Channelnewsasia, 20 August 2007)

India's quiet sea power (Asia Times, 2 August 2007)

Japan: A Military by Any Other Name (TIME, 11 January 2007)