Forecasting India-Japan ties under Modi and Abe

India's newly elected prime minister Narendra Modi and Japan's prime minister Shinzo Abe enjoy a friendship which signals increasing co-operation and integration of both nations' economic and defense plans in a new regional strategic partnership. 

Sourabh Jyoti Sharma
27 June 2014
Waving Japanese and Indian flags on the background of the political map of the world

Japanese and Indian flags waving on the background of the political map of the world Shutterstock / esfera

India and Japan, the two largest democratic powers in continental Asia, share very close and cordial relations. Thanks to India’s Look East Policy (LEP), the warmth of that relationship is now encouraging the emergence of the ‘strategic’ contours of bilateral diplomacy. So far so good, but what is the future of this ongoing, and mutually beneficial relationship, especially now that India has overwhelmingly elected Narendra Modi of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as its Prime Minister. On the other side of India’s far eastern frontier, Japan has already elected Shinzo Abe, an ardent nationalist who represents ‘Japanese Dreams’ as its PM in the remarkable landslide poll of 2012. What beckons in the close relations between these two Asian democracies?

Understanding the 'Modi-Abe' personal chemistry

Even before the mass euphoria over electing India’s most popular leader Modi as its new PM receded, and while the new incumbent was still seated in his Gandhinagar election ‘war-room’ on the victorious ‘D-day’ of May 16, Modi was informed that someone wanted to talk to him. That ‘somebody’ was soon found to be none other than Prime Minister Abe from Japan. As Modi ended the fifteen minute long ‘congratulatory talk’ with Abe, it was decided that Japan would be the first foreign destination on Modi’s itinerary after ‘officially’ becoming India’s PM on May 26.

Modi and Abe already share a good personal rapport. Both leaders are dynamic, tech-savvy, and relatively young leaders representing the ‘nationalistic hopes and aspirations’ of their nations. It is worth mentioning here that Modi is the ‘only’ Indian leader and ‘only’ chief minister out of 29 states of India that PM Abe has been following keenly on Twitter. Abe is a known ‘lover’ of India whom he praised profusely in his memoir A Beautiful Country, and the ‘only’ Japanese PM calling India the ‘lynchpin’ of the Indo-Japanese global strategic architecture of the future in the Indo-Pacific region.

Modi for his part shares a strong personal interest in Japan, visited by his beloved ‘Guru’ and ‘Ideal Man’, the ‘Cyclonic Hindoo Monk’ Swami Vivekananda while en route on his maiden voyage to attend the World Parliament of Religions of Chicago in 1893. Swamiji was reportedly in awe of the sheer intensity of the love of the Japanese people for their nation and foretold its becoming a global giant. No power, he predicted, would ever dare to enslave such a patriotic nation.

Modi and Abe share some other commonalities between them, too. Both India and Japan have been experiencing an era of ‘successive coalition governments’ which has become the ‘natural’ way of government formation, since no single party could secure a majority on its own, till these two respectively appeared on the scene. In 2012, Abe, representing the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) of Japan, was elected as PM in a landslide victory. In 2014, Modi was elected India’s PM in an overwhelming surge of an unprecedented ‘saffron tsunami’--the decisive majoritarian rejection of years of ‘pseudo-secular’ minority politics, a long overdue feat.

Both ‘strong men’ received a full majority for their parties, ushering in a new era of stabilized decisive governance and ending ‘coalition eras’ gripped by instability and indecisiveness and characterized as having lame duck prime ministers. Modi and Abe are well known for their strong nationalistic leanings and their respective economic models viz. Modinomics and Abenomics. Modi’s visa was cancelled by the US in 2005, citing the post-2002 Godhra Gujarat riots, and Abe’s visit to Beijing has been virtually banned by Communist China after he paid homage to the WW II Japanese soldiers who died fighting on Chinese soil, and whose ashes are being preserved in a “controversial” Buddhist Temple in Japan. Both are leaders who were born after WW II and the independence of their nations in the 1940s. Both are booklovers and writers, too, with keen interests in the latest trends in fashion.

India-Japan relations: areas of futuristic economic and strategic co-operation

India-Japan relations today rest on a very solid and mature ground of mutual respect and co-operation. In 2006, India and Japan signed the Comprehensive Economic and Cooperation Agreement (CEPA). Japan is India’s fourth largest investor, investing about $14 billion under Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) and in various other projects. Bilateral trade in 2012 stood at $18 billion and is set to rise under Modi-Abe personal bonhomie-led initiatives to boost investment further to new heights. When Modi was still Gujarat’s CM, Japanese companies participating in his ‘Vibrant Gujarat: Global Investment Summits’ project invested about $2-$3 billion in various manufacturing and infrastructure projects. After becoming India’s PM, Modi can showcase the success of Delhi Metro Rail Corporation (DMRC) as the ‘model’ for scripting other future success stories.

In the pipeline of future Indo-Japanese co-operation are completing the ambitious Delhi Mumbai Industrial Corridor (DMIC) and the futuristic Delhi-Ahmadabad-Mumbai Bullet Train (DAM-BT). The Japanese government has also expressed interest in helping establish a Chennai-Bangalore Industrial corridor and a Dedicated Freight project in the south, which would connect the cities of Bangalore and Chennai.

Moreover, both Indian and Japanese companies can collaborate in the manufacturing sector, particularly in the automobile industry. There are so many Japanese car makers in India--Honda, Toyota, Nissan, Mitsubishi, Mazda--that can join hands with Indian auto majors like Tata Motors, Mahindra, Bajaj Auto, Premiere, and TVS, establishing ‘hubs’ in industrial areas of both nations on an agreed mutual reciprocity plan. While Japan can share its ‘advanced technologies’, India can share its globally admired ‘cost effective solutions’ in making the best cars at the lowest price end. In the IT sector, joint collaboration, for instance, between Toshiba and HCL, or in the mobile telephony between Sony and Micromax seems a good possibility. Here, the mutual competence and strength of both nations (viz India in software and Japan in hardware) will benefit each other. The sky is the limit, and a great future awaits India-Japan economic partnerships attracting huge FDIs, making both nations the best of the world’s exiting manufacturing hubs.

Today, China has a monopoly in this area, which could however be competitively challenged by an India-Japan partnership, thanks to the availability of enough low cost skilled labourers and raw materials in both nations. What was previously absent to date was the political will, but with both Modi and Abe joining together, these Asian giants will be ‘willed’ together to end China’s long-standing monopoly in this area, for sure.

Bilateral trade between India and Japan in recent years (in billions of USD) 





Exports from India to Japan




Exports from Japan to India




Source: “Bilateral Trade with Japan”, Press Information Bureau (PIB), Govt. of India, 12 February 2014.

India and Japan concluded a security pact on 22 October 2008, India becoming one of only three countries in the world with whom Japan has a security pact, the other two being Australia and the United States. In the defense sector--still a virgin area--Greenfield investments can be achieved through joint-collaboration between Indian and Japanese defense manufacturing companies. Both are active naval partners, so there could be more emphasis on building both defense and merchant ships, a sector in which Communist China is calling the shots today. Maritime co-operation seems inevitable between the two seafaring nations which rely heavily on imported energy for its ‘safe passage’ via securing the crucial sea lanes of communication (SLOCs) across the Indian Ocean region towards the volatile South China Sea in the vicinity of Indo-Pacific region.

Most notably, Japan has opted to re-orient its export policies that banned it from exporting arms after World War II. With the recent negotiations of Shinmaywa’s US-2 Amphibian aircrafts under way, Indo-Japan defense ties are surely heading for a fresh reckoning. After the release of the ‘new’ defense doctrine espousing ‘pro-active pacifism’ brought out by Abe in late 2013, a realistic assessment of Indo-Japanese defense and strategic co-operation is set to be renewed by India’s new PM.

Both can opt to co-operate in exploring nuclear energy to lessen dependence on burgeoning energy imports to fuel their economic growth, especially after the signing of the Indo-US Nuclear Agreement plus NSG waiver. New areas of bilateral strategic co-operation could be found viz. co-operation in joint space expeditions and joint development of missile technologies (both ballistic and cruise), given their proven competence in those emerging ‘strategic areas’ which enjoy lucrative markets with increasing demands across the globe.  

Both countries are already revisiting their defense preparedness in the face of what they see as their arch-rival Communist China’s growing militarism. China's 'historical claims' to sole ownership of India’s Arunachal Pradesh (Southern Tibet for China) and Japan’s Senkaku islands (Diaoyu islands for China) are confronting them on a daily basis. India’s ongoing defensive military infrastructure buildup in Arunachal Pradesh and periodical US-India-Japan joint naval exercises in its ‘solely claimed oceanic backyard’ in the East and South China Sea have already rattled Beijing, presenting them with an emerging ‘Troika’, especially after the US’s ‘pivot to Asia’ ‘rebalanced a growing maritime asymmetry in the region'. India, Troika thinking now has it, could help form Abe’s ‘democratic arc’ in containing Communist China’s maritime overdrives in the Indian Ocean.

Mutual expectations: what can Modi and Abe expect from each other?

If Modi visits Japan again, it will be his third visit. Previously, he met the Japanese PM in 2007 when Abe was on an India visit and again in July, 2012, when as Gujarat CM Modi visited Japan where he was accorded ‘state guest’ (reserved only for heads of state) hospitality, Abe ostensibly foreseeing his rise to the saddle in 2014.

There is a ‘new upbeat optimism’ for growing an India-Japan strategic partnership under Modi and Abe. A prominent thinker of India’s strategic community has already termed Modi as ‘India’s Abe’ and vice versa. Both Abe and Communist China have from time to time referred to Modi as the ‘Nixon’ of India--after US President Richard Nixon’s ice-breaking visit to Mao’s China in 1971 which led to developing closer ties.

When Modi visited Japan in 2012, he was shown the ‘economic miracle’ of Japan while travelling through the one of the world’s most heavily industrialized belts of the island nation on a bullet train. Modi was so impressed that he expressed a desire to emulate the ‘Japanese economic cum industrial growth model’ in India.  Abe, the self-proclaimed Indophile, will be happy to give Japanese wings to Modi’s dream of building a new dynamic India--a powerful India of hope and inclusive growth.

This may well be Asia’s fastest growing bilateral diplomacy or what both the Twitterattis would love to call “Twiplomacy” (Twitter Diplomacy), as the two peoples look with high expectations to these leaders of the emerging ‘great powers’ in global power politics. India under Modi, however, must carefully craft a cautious balancing act in its ongoing relations with the two Asian rival nations; continuing with more ‘business-like’ relations with Beijing while preserving the ‘warmth’ of a much closer bilateral diplomatic embrace with Tokyo.

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