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TIME TO BUILD NEW BRIDGES

In a dramatic reversal of fortunes, the Liberal Democratic Party won a landslide victory in the Japanese parliamentary elections three years after its defeat at the hands of the Democratic Party of Japan, which has now been ousted from power. Taking responsibility for the crushing defeat of the DPJ, the former prime minister, Yoshihiko Noda, resigned immediately, suggesting that his government had “failed to meet the people’s hopes after the change of government three years and four months ago.” The DPJ’s performance at governance had been so disappointing that the voters had to go back to a party that promised to revive the economy and stand up to an increasingly aggressive China.

The leader of the LDP, Shinzo Abe, conceded that “this was not a restoration of confidence in the Liberal Democratic Party, but a rejection of three years of incompetent rule by the Democratic Party.” The LDP has won 294 seats in the 480-seat Lower House of the Diet, up from just 119 seats in the last elections. As a result, Abe has been elected as Japan’s new prime minister. It is being hoped that the political paralysis plaguing Japan for the last several years will now be resolved with the LDP forming the government with New Komeito, giving the coalition a 320-seat veto-proof ‘supermajority,’ allowing it to pass bills without the support of the DPJ-led Upper House.

Abe had previously served as the prime minister for a year from September 2006, but was forced to step down due to poor public support ratings and a chronic stomach ailment. In his second innings, Abe has promised to stimulate the Japanese economy and end deflation by passing a strong stimulus bill as well as to make Japanese exports more competitive by devaluing the yen. Though he is viewed as a staunch nationalist and a hawk vis-à-vis China, he made it clear that he would be working towards improving ties with China as well as with the United States of America. What is perhaps most significant is that nuclear power will be back in business with the coming to power of the LDP. What is equally controversial is Abe’s desire to rewrite the Japanese post-World War II pacifist constitution.

Tensions between China and Japan have been rising over the islands — known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China — ever since the Japanese government decided to buy some of the islands from a private-sector owner. In recent days, China has not only sent a flotilla of navy ships near the islands but a Chinese military surveillance plane also entered Japanese airspace, forcing Japan to scramble fighter jets in response. China is steadily escalating its pressure on Japan as part of a strategy being overseen by the new leader, Xi Jinping. After his party’s victory, Abe was quick to underline that “China is challenging the fact that (the islands) are Japan’s inherent territory,” and suggested that his party’s “objective is to stop the challenge” but not to “worsen relations between Japan and China”. Beijing’s reaction to Abe’s victory has been muted so far. It has merely underlined the fact that the Chinese government hopes that “the Japanese politicians can look at the big picture of the development of the China-Japan relations and work with China to drive the sound and stable growth of relations forward.”

As the world watches carefully how Abe’s second term in office shapes up Japan’s domestic and foreign policies, New Delhi should lose no time in reaching out to Tokyo. Given Abe’s admiration for India and his repeated articulation of the need for India and Japan to work more closely, this is a unique opportunity to radically alter the contours of Indo-Japanese ties. While Delhi-Tokyo relations have been developing slowly and steadily over the last few years, the momentum seems to have suffered in recent times. The two nations have, however, concluded the agreement on social security as well as a memorandum on cooperation in the rare earths industry. The rare earths industry MoC was a significant initiative in light of China’s decision to cut off its exports of rare earths minerals to Japan following a territorial dispute in 2010. But the discussions on civilian nuclear energy cooperation between the two nations have been stuck for quite some time now. With Abe’s coming to power with a strong pro-nuclear power agenda, time is ripe to regain the initiative on these negotiations.

Of all recent Japanese leaders, Abe has been the most enthusiastic about the future of India-Japan relationship and had given it an entirely new dimension. In his address to the joint session of the Indian Parliament, Abe talked about a “broader Asia” constituting Pacific and Indian Ocean countries such as Japan, India, Australia and the US that share common values of democracy, freedom and respect for basic human rights. He argued for greater cooperation among these states. In his book, Towards a Beautiful Country, Abe makes the case about Japan advancing its national interests by strengthening its ties with India. He has argued: “It will not be a surprise if in another decade Japan-India relations overtake Japan-US and Japan-China ties.” Building on the idea of a triangular security dialogue among Washington, Tokyo, and Canberra that was initiated by his predecessor, Abe made known his desire to create a four-way strategic dialogue with the US, Australia and India, a framework that he stressed would be based on shared universal values such as freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law.

New Delhi now has a chance to give a new dimension to its ties with Tokyo. It must seize the moment.