Indian sources are reporting that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will visit Japan in the first week of July. According to the Indian Express, Modi will head to Japan following his first bilateral overseas visit, a trip to Bhutan. India and Japan have held annual prime ministerial summits since declaring a Strategic Global Partnership in 2006. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe most recently visited New Delhi as the chief guest at India’s Republic Day celebrations in January 2014.
As I wrote earlier in The Diplomat, visiting Japan is a highly sensible move for Modi and undertaking the trip in the first few months of his prime ministerial tenure sends a strong signal to Japan and the rest of Asia. According to the Indian Express, Modi’s agenda in Tokyo will focus primarily on civil nuclear cooperation — long an outstanding issue in the relatively warm relationship between India and Japan — and trade. Regarding the latter, Modi is likely to speak with Abe about the implementation of the 2008 India-Japan Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) which relaxed tariffs and encouraged more trade between India and Japan. CEPA came into force in 2011 and is expected to result in a major increase in bilateral trade between India and Japan, which has been woefully under-capitalized given the economic synergies between the two countries. Given Modi’s interest in developing India into a trading powerhouse, he would do well to consult with Abe to ensure that Japan is fully committed to making the most of CEPA.
From the March 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami up until Shinzo Abe’s election in December 2012, India-Japan relations remained relatively stagnant despite the huge strategic momentum from CEPA’s entry into force. Civil nuclear negotiations were essentially stalled under the governments of the two Democratic Party of Japan prime ministers in that era, Naoto Kan and Yoshihiko Noda. India and Japan did conduct a bilateral naval exercise in 2012, but made little progress on these other important issues. Under Abe, Japan’s economy has recovered partly from its deflationary slump and wages and household consumption remain robust, despite April’s consumption tax increase. In this sense, Modi should be able to encourage optimistic Japanese firms to invest in India as well.
Another significant issue that hasn’t been mentioned too widely in press coverage of India-Japan relations is the pending sale of ShinMaywa US-2 amphibious aircraft from Japan to India. India will purchase 15 of these aircraft and the deal should be concluded sometime in 2014. Modi’s visit to Tokyo would be as good a time as any. Once the deal is concluded, India will become the first country to purchase defense equipment from Japan since 1967 — Japan implemented a self-imposed ban on weapons exports that has recently been relaxed under Shinzo Abe. The US-2 negotiations, however, began under the DPJ government of Naoto Kan.
With his trip to Japan planned for early July, Modi’s foreign policy calendar is appearing markedly diverse for his first few months in office. He will be visiting one of India’s smaller neighbors, Bhutan, later this month. Following that, he will head to Tokyo. Shortly after his trip to Tokyo, Modi will head to the BRICS summit. Later on, in September, Modi will visit Washington in what will be his most important foreign trip since his return from Japan. While Modi was noticeably tight-lipped on foreign policy matters during his campaign for prime minister, perusing his rhetoric and behavior over these four foreign trips should provide a good indicator of where his foreign policy priorities will lie during his tenure as India’s prime minister.