The India-Japan entente

The landslide victory of Narendra Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party in India’s 2014 general elections marks a historic turning point in the India-Japan relations.

Modi, the new leader of the world’s largest democracy, and Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, both decisive nationalist leaders who believe in firm foreign policy and likewise wary of China’s growing ambitions in the Asia-Pacific, are determined to strengthen Indo-Japanese strategic partnership and forge a “special relationship” between Asia’s two principal democracies.

Strategically, many India-watchers as well as Asian leaders view Narendra Modi as India’s Shinzo Abe. “After a prolonged period of political drift and paralysis,” writes Brahma Chellaney, professor of strategic studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research, “India’s new government will be led by a man known for his decisiveness. Just as Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s return to power in late 2012, after six years of political instability, reflected Japan’s determination to reinvent itself as a more competitive and confident country, Narendra Modi’s election victory reflects Indians’ desire for a dynamic, assertive leader to help revitalize their country’s economy and security.”

“Like Abe,” says Professor Chellaney, “Modi is expected to focus on reviving India’s economic fortunes while simultaneously bolstering its defenses and strengthening its strategic partnerships with likeminded states, thereby promoting regional stability and blocking the rise of a Sino-centric Asia. The charismatic Modi mirrors Abe’s soft nationalism and new Asianism, seeking close ties with Asian democracies to create a web of interlocking strategic partnerships.”

Personally, India’s new prime minster has developed a very close personal relationship with Abe. As Malini Goyal and Dipanjan Chaudhury of India Times report, “It is the hottest cross-border romance India has seen in a long time. Newly elected Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe have been buddies for close to a decade now. In power or out of it, they have looked out for each other. Sidestepping protocol, they have met on visits to each other’s country. And unlike the muted ways of the diplomatic world, the Modi-Abe chemistry has played out in full public view and drawn global media attention.”

When Abe won a seismic victory in the December 2012 Japanese election, Modi, as the Chief Minister of India’s Gujarat state, broke diplomatic protocol to congratulate him. Modi is also one of the three Twitter accounts that Abe follows. On the day Modi won the elections, Abe called to personally congratulate him. Modi then twittered back to thank the Japanese Prime Minster: “Personally, I have a wonderful experience of working with Japan. I am sure that we will take India-Japan ties to newer heights.”

Economically, cash-rich Japan and investment-starved India make natural partners. Today India is the largest recipient of Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA)’s overseas assistance program – JICA’s cumulative commitment to India reached $3,781 billion in loan, grant aid and technical cooperation in 2013. Many India’s mega infrastructure projects, including New Delhi Metro system and the $90-billion Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor, are being executed with Japan’s financial support.

“India will be the next big destination for Japanese companies,” says Shinya Ejima, chief representative of JICA India. Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO) has set up its first industrial park in Neemrana, India, with 46 Japanese companies moved in. JETRO is also planning for two more industrial parks in India, one in Rajasthan state and another is coming up in Gujarat state.

The economic empathy shared by Prime Ministers Modi and Abe is giving the Indian-Japanese bilateral economic ties a major boost. “India is the best country for Japan and its people to do business with. It is also our perfect partner to jointly tap new overseas markets like Africa,” says Naoyoshi Noguchi, chief director general of JETRO.

“Modi’s victory,” noted Professor Chellaney, “is turning Indo-Japanese ties – Asia’s fastest-developing bilateral relationship-into the main driver of India’s ‘Look East’ strategy, which, with America’s blessing, seeks to strengthen economic and strategic cooperation with U.S. allies and partners in East and Southeast Asia. Abe, who has sought to build security options for Japan beyond the current U.S.-centric framework, has argued that his country’s ties with India hold ‘the greatest potential of any bilateral relationship anywhere in the world’.”

The Japan-India entente under Narendra Modi and Shinzo Abe will reshape the strategic landscape in the Asia-Pacific. The emergence of such an “axis-of-democracy” is a welcome development for the regional peace and stability. However, it is also likely to provoke the Middle Kingdom’s ire.

Xiaoxiong Yi is the director of Marietta College’s China Program.