Shortly after the shocking news of the assassination of Japanese former prime minister, Abe Shinzo, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that the following day, July 9, would be a day of national mourning in India for the slain leader. The show of respect was an appropriate statement for the loss of Abe, who was a transformative figure in Japan-India relations. Abe strengthened India’s bilateral relationship with Japan, and enticed India, a notoriously reluctant and cautious actor in global politics, to join his vision of the Indo-Pacific—an ideological framework that is now an important bulwark against the rise of China. In the process, Abe also managed to forge friendships with both Modi as well as Modi’s predecessor, Manmohan Singh.
During the Cold War period, Japan and India maintained a politely distant relationship—Japan was a U.S. ally while India was non-aligned. In 1998, India tested nuclear weapons, sinking their relationship. Japan publicly criticized India and imposed economic sanctions. A few years later, Japanese prime minister Mori Yoshiro visited India and extended an olive branch by proposing a “global partnership.” But it was not until Abe Shinzo and Manmohan Singh met in Tokyo in 2006 that the stage was set for a deeper Japan-India relationship. They announced an “India Japan Strategic and Global Partnership” that would become a cornerstone of the bilateral relationship. In 2014, Abe and Modi upgraded the partnership to a “special and strategic partnership,” which effectively expanded the relationship to encompass diplomatic, military, and economic sectors. Japan was, for example, the first country with which India initiated a 2+2 dialogue between foreign and defense ministers, now a practice India has extended to three other partners: the United States, Australia, and Russia. The two countries also conducted joint military drills, naval exercises, and counterterrorism operations. A Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement in 2011 expanded their bilateral trade, with Japan becoming India’s 12th largest trading partner, and fourth largest investor by 2020. Importantly, in 2016, Japan and India signed a civil nuclear pact, eliminating Japan’s resistance to India as a nuclear power.
Abe’s individual leadership was critical to all these developments. Showing the significance he attached to Japan-India ties, Abe became the first Japanese prime minister to visit India three times. His very first visit in 2007 was hugely significant not only for the Japan-India relationship, but also for how India would come to think about its role in the region. Abe gave what would later be recognized as a seminal speech in the Indian Parliament. Quoting from the book of a Mughal prince, Dara Shikoh, he declared that there was “a Confluence of the Two Seas” and the “Pacific and Indian Oceans [were] a dynamic coupling as seas of freedom and prosperity.” This vision of the Indo-Pacific as a single strategic space—in which both countries had a stake—would shape Japan’s bilateral relationship with India for years to come and draw India into a larger cooperative partnership, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), that would bind it more closely to not just Japan but also the United States and Australia. Founded on a shared concern about the rise of China and Chinese territorial ambitions, the Quad was an ambitious formal undertaking to contain China without an explicit statement of that goal.
In addition to demonstrating that the Japan-India relationship was critical to both partners and the broader region, Abe also managed to forge friendships with the two vastly different Indian prime ministers who served during his term. Manmohan Singh, the cerebral and staunchly secular economist from the Congress Party, invited Abe to become the first Japanese prime minister to preside over India’s Republic Day celebrations in 2014. But, more surprisingly perhaps, he became fast friends with Narendra Modi, a paradox of a loner and a hugger, and a man with a polar opposite personality, leadership style, and politics than Singh. Upon Abe’s death, Modi emotionally wrote that he had lost “a dear friend” with whom he had a “personal bond.”
Those of us who study international relations often debate whether leaders truly have impact upon inter-country ties, or whether inter-country ties are forged by external circumstances superfluous to any single leader. In the case of Abe Shinzo, the evidence that he personally played a role in strengthening the Japan-India relationship is strong. He was indeed, as Prime Minister Modi wrote, “a champion of India-Japan friendship.”