Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s trip to Japan, his first bilateral visit outside the subcontinent, has laid the foundation for a new era in India-Japan ties. While Modi and his Japanese counterpart, Shinzo Abe, have developed a special rapport, the PM has built on his productive engagement with Japanese business as chief minister of Gujarat. The cultural connect between the two countries through old civilisational ties — illustrated by Modi’s visit to Kyoto, Japan’s ancient capital, and his tour of Buddhist temples — leverages the past in pursuit of New Delhi and Tokyo’s current goals. The sister-city partnership between Kyoto and Varanasi ties in with the smart cities project.
In promoting a closer economic partnership, Modi has promised a more business-friendly India, with emphasis on non-discriminatory and speedy clearances as well as setting up a special team within the PMO to facilitate Japanese ventures. Modi’s reference to the return of India’s growth story and acknowledgement of Japan’s role in India’s infrastructural development assume significance given the target of doubling Japanese FDI in five years, during which Abe expects to see 3.5 trillion yen invested in India. But even as Tokyo offers support for building the high-speed Shinkansen railway system, Delhi cannot be happy that the big-ticket civil nuclear pact was not signed. Although the deal saw progress in the last few weeks — and Japan lifted export restrictions on six Indian defence and space entities during Modi’s visit — Tokyo’s staunchly non-proliferation bureaucracy put conditions that Delhi could not accept, and it is difficult to see Abe selling the deal at home in any other form.
The pending nuclear deal, however, does not take the shine off Modi’s visit, which took place amid growing tensions between China and Japan. Modi’s reference to “vistar vaad (expansionism)”, in a speech to Japanese business leaders, seemed an indirect reference to China’s aggressive tactics in its territorial dispute with Japan. But even as Delhi and Tokyo underscored closer defence and strategic cooperation with the “Tokyo Declaration for India-Japan Special Strategic and Global Partnership”, Modi has signalled Delhi’s eagerness to deepen economic and political cooperation with Beijing when Chinese President Xi Jinping visits India this month. Both Modi and Abe know that building on their bilateral synergies, the two countries could improve their relative weights against China. If the 21st century is to be an Asian century, its character will depend on India-Japan cooperation. For now, Modi and Abe’s betting on each other is paying off.