Narendra Modi’s first international visit as India’s prime minister should be, and likely will be, to Japan. Predicting the future is a dangerous game, but the strategic logic of Modi dropping by Tokyo on Shinzo Abe’s invitation early on in his tenure as India’s prime minister is too sensible to ignore. Expect a Modi visit to Japan before the end of the summer.
Bilateral relations between India and Japan have been on a positive swing since 2000, when former Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori’s visit to India normalized relations after Japan sanctioned India for its 1998 nuclear tests. More significantly, after the two nations declared their “Strategic Global Partnership” in 2006 (a declaration made under Abe’s first tenure as prime minister) economic and security ties between the two countries have grown rapidly. While the convergence between India and Japan is in part due to the rise of China and its growing assertiveness towards its interests in the Asia-Pacific, China at the same time was a limiting factor for India’s United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, which feared upsetting China by making any moves that would be perceived by Beijing as overt encirclement. Narendra Modi and the BJP, by contrast, see the benefits of growing ever closer with Tokyo as outweighing the costs of raising suspicions in Beijing.
Readers might recall that The Diplomat was host to a debate last month about the similarities and differences between Narendra Modi and Shinzo Abe. Whatever the similarities and differences might be between the two leaders on a personal level, what matters most is that the underlying nationalism motivating both Abe and Modi will encourage them to build on the strong foundations in India-Japan relations that were forged by both of their predecessors. Even ignoring security issues and the China factor, Modi would do well to engage Japan early in his tenure as prime minister. India and Japan have a free-trade agreement in the form of the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) and Japan is a major investor in Indian infrastructure projects such as the Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor (DMIC). Modi has made economic growth and good governance a priority for his administration — enlisting Japan as a reliable partner could only have benefits.
For Modi, his experience dealing with Japan as the Chief Minister of Gujarat was largely positive. His visit to the country in 2007 galvanized Japanese investment into Gujarat. Japanese investment in Gujarat is expected to top $2 billion in the coming years. During his campaign for prime minister, Modi hinted at encouraging Indian states to undertake this sort of “paradiplomacy.” Through a visit to Japan, Modi could encourage Japanese business leaders to interface with Indian state governments directly. In the process, he would send a powerful signal to India’s state governments promoting paradiplomacy as an effective means of seeking out development assistance.
Shinzo Abe, similarly, has much to gain by actively reaching out to Modi and the BJP. In fact, Modi is precisely the sort of Indian leader that Abe would admire (Modi is one of only three people Abe follows on Twitter, the other two being his wife and a scandalous Japanese politician). Abe is a well-known Indophile. He has somewhat controversially lauded the Indian Judge Radhabinod Pal, the sole dissenting judge at the Military Tribunal for the Far East,for standing up in Tokyo’s favor. Pal is a permanent fixture at the controversial Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo for his dissenting opinion. After Modi’s election victory, Abe wasted no time reaching out publicly:
.@narendramodi Great talking to you, Mr. Modi. I look forward to welcoming you in Tokyo and further deepening our friendly ties.
— 安倍晋三 (@AbeShinzo) May 20, 2014
For Abe, India and Japan are the pegs of an Asian security order that will serve to keep China in check and promote prosperity along the Asian rimland. Abe outlined this basic vision in a 2007 speech in India where he pitched Japan as the guardian of the Pacific and India as the guardian of the Indian Ocean — their strategic cooperation takes place at the “Confluence of the Two Seas” (the title of that speech). Abe additionally envisaged India as a peg in his now-forgotten “Quadrilateral Initiative” that also included Washington and Canberra. Indeed, Abe hearkened back to this rhetoric in his keynote speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue this past weekend:
In India, Mr Narendra Modi has become Prime Minister through another free and fair election. I am absolutely certain that when I welcome Prime Minister Modi to Tokyo we will successfully confirm that Japan-India cooperation, as well as trilateral cooperation, including our two countries, will make the ‘confluence of the two seas’ that is the Pacific and the Indian Ocean peaceful and more prosperous.
Abe’s Shangri-La statements seemed to invite India to join the U.S.-Japan alliance which is the “cornerstone for regional peace and stability” in his view. By repeatedly referencing trilateral cooperation, Abe seems keen to bring the United States and India together as important partners for Japan. Under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Japan, India, and the United States did interface trilaterally on security matters. Furthermore, the navies of the three nations have conducted exercises together.
Despite the great deal of strategic convergence between the two leaders and the strong motives for Modi and Abe to communicate early into the former’s prime ministerial term, India and Japan have unfinished bilateral business that needs tending to. While economic ties between the two countries are strong on paper, Japan’s investment in and trade with India remains woefully under-capitalized in part owing to India’s relatively investor-unfriendly domestic policies. Modi has indicated that he will do all he can to make India more friendly and accessible for foreign investors, including Japan. On defense matters, India’s new defense minister, Arun Jaitley, has said that he would place an emphasis on speeding up India’s lethargic procurement process. To this end, Modi and Abe could finally conclude the ShinMaywa US-2 sale, which would mark an important milestone in defense cooperation between the two countries.
It is possible that Modi could end up visiting a country other than Japan for his first visit abroad, although almost every other major Indian partner seems a less compelling destination at this time. A visit to one of India’s neighborly rivals, Pakistan or China, is far-fetched and would cost the BJP government significant political capital. A visit to the United States or Russia may seem more likely, but in reality the Modi administration would have little to gain economically (a visit to the U.S. could send a strong signal to Washington but would likely again have domestic costs). By visiting Japan, Modi would let India, Asia, and the world know that he is serious about India’s ‘Look-East’ Policy, about working with Tokyo to actively uphold the status quo order in Asia, and about developing India’s strategic partnership with Japan.