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Why Indo-Pacific pioneer Shinzo Abe deserves the Padma Vibhushan

Within India, Abe will be recognised as face of Japan’s friendship to achieve India’s modernisation in the digital age

India’s decision to bestow the Padma Vibhushan—the country’s second highest civilian award on Shinzo Abe – is a befitting acknowledgement by the Modi administration of the former Japanese Prime Minister’s unique role in elevating Japan-India ties to an unprecedented strategic level.

Abe was crowned with the honour for "exceptional and distinguished service” in the field of public affairs.

He will be the second Japanese citizen of eminence, after former Defence Minister Hosei Norota, received the same award in 2001.

It was not hard for the jury to pick Abe as a Padma Vibhushan awardee. The former premier played a seminal role in grasping that with China’s rise, Japan and India together can, and must become a powerful vector in shaping a more balanced order in the region and beyond.

Abe’s role was central in roping India in ensuring a free and open Indo-Pacific region, threatened by Chinese belligerence in the East and South China seas as well as the Indian Ocean. In fact, Abe chose an address to the Indian Parliament in August 2007 to pioneer the idea of an India-Japan strategic partnership for ensuring a free and open Indo-Pacific.

In a speech titled "Confluence of the Two Seas" in India’s parliament in he said: "The Pacific and the Indian Oceans are now bringing about a dynamic coupling as seas of freedom and of prosperity. A 'broader Asia' that broke away geographical boundaries is now beginning to take on a distinct form."

In recognising that their strategic bandwidth needed to be expanded, Abe impressed upon India that New Delhi’s geopolitical footprint could no longer be confined to the Indian Ocean alone. In his “think big” approach, Abe saw India as a role player on either side of the Malacca Straits — a sensitive choke point channelling massive flows of international trade.

Abe also needs to be credited for being a doer rather than a talker. Throughout his tenure, he and Prime Minister Narendra Modi visualised and nailed structural changes that were required to fulfil the vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific. With the shadow of China looming large, the two countries appreciated the importance of developing cross-border infrastructure to fulfil new strategic aspirations.

Unsurprisingly, during Abe’s tenure, the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) was given a push for the construction of the Dhubri Phulbari bridge over the Brahmaputra. This was no ordinary enterprise. By doing so landlocked Bhutan, instead of falling at some point, into the Chinese orbit of influence, can now become structurally integrated with the Indo-Pacific via India’s northeast.

Once the 19-kilometre bridge is built, Bhutan can be connected with Da Nang in Vietnam via two major international highways marshalled by India and Japan which merge with each other in Thailand.

Abe also pushed for an India-Japan partnership for building the third deep sea container terminal at Colombo port amid deep Chinese inroads in Sri Lanka as part of its expansionist push in South Asia.

Also, with India’s tacit support, Japan has contracted the construction of the Matarbari port in Bangladesh, after Dhaka decided not to award the development of neighbouring Sonadia port to China. Abe’s vision of the Indo-Pacific was also ideologically driven. The Japanese leader was deeply conscious that a free and open Indo-Pacific had to be defended by the world’s leading democracies, and not become a geographic space where a China-led authoritarian model of “governance” prevailed.

Consequently, the formation of the Indo-Pacific Quad, which Abe fully backed as the teeth of the free and open Indo-Pacific, comprises India, Japan, Australia and the United States — all major democracies of the globe. Expanding on the ground-breaking efforts of Abe and others, key European democracies including France, Germany and UK are now showing greater interest of militarily re-engaging with the region.

The former Japanese leader was acutely conscious that India, with its traditional influence, was Tokyo’s prime partner in developing Africa. In May 2017, Abe and Modi flagged the Asia-Africa growth corridor.

Within India, Abe will be recognised as face of Japan’s friendship to achieve India’s modernisation in the digital age. His shadow will loom large over the flagging of India’s first bullet train spanning Mumbai and Ahmadabad. The Delhi-Mumbai freight corridor would also be seen as part of his impressive legacy.