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The Shinzo Abe–Narendra Modi dynamic reflect growing warmth in the Indo-Japan relationship

Wednesday, 21 May 2014 - 3:49pm IST

In July 2012, the Indian High Commission in Tokyo was preparing for a highly anticipated visit by the Chief Minister of Gujarat Narendra Modi to Japan. Diplomats at the High Commission had prepared economic briefs and other such documents for Modi to familiarise him with the country’s economy, industry and its political and business leaders. 

According to a diplomat who was serving in Tokyo then, all the briefs prepared were useless. The diplomat said that Modi had come fully prepared, knew beforehand about everyone he was to meet on the trip and he gave his own presentations, himself, using his laptop during the 4 day visit. “He was the most prepared minister from India we had ever been visited by,” the diplomat said. 

When Modi was in Tokyo, one Shinzo Abe was the leader of opposition. Five months later in December 2012, Abe led the Liberal Democratic Party to a landslide victory, and became the new Prime Minister of Japan. And now, Modi has orchestrated a landslide victory in India himself, and is set to take over as the country’s new prime minister on the 26th May.  

Modi and Abe share a special relationship, and both are bullish on Japan and India’s economic growth in the fast shifting geo-political and geo-economic order of Asia. A lot of this stems from two factors. First, both India and Japan are wary of China and the possibility of Beijing becoming a hegemon in the region. Second, Modi pursued a ‘look East’ policy after many in the West, specifically the United States, closed their doors to him as part of the fallout over the 2002 communal-riots in Gujarat. 

The comradery between Abe and Modi gained steam in 2007 when the former visited Gujarat, and has only grown stronger ever since. According to people in the know, both Abe and Modi share very similar views on economics and till a large extent are on the same page regarding world affairs, specifically India and Japan’s place in the rise of Asia. In fact, Abe’s account on Twitter only follows three people, one of them being Modi. 

Modi, upon his victory, told Abe: “Personally, I have a wonderful experience of working with you, and I would like to cooperate with you to take India – Japan ties to newer heights from now on. I appreciate your inviting me to visit Japan. I look forward to meeting you.” 

It is not hard to imagine why Modi would like to imitate Japan’s successes in India. During his 2012 trip, he also visited the cities of Nagoya, Kobe, Osaka and Hamamatsu. He travelled in the bullet trains for these trips which pass through some of the most heavily industrialised regions on the planet. Hence it does not come as a surprise that Modi is inspired by Japan’s economic and technological story so much so that he plans to bring the bullet train to India as one of his top agendas. 

Estimates suggest Japanese private sector investment in Gujarat is expected to touch nearly $1.7 billion by 2014-15 and over $2 billion by 2015-16. The relationship between Abe and Modi is now set to benefit India even further. According to reports, Modi has accepted Abe's invitation to make a state visit to Japan later this year. Overall, India’s annual trade with Japan for financial year 2012-13 stood at $18.61 billion, still small compared to others such as the US and China, but the Abe – Modi dynamic in all likeliness will boost these numbers significantly in the years to come. The challenges between India and Japan, such as that of electricity, power, natural resources and so on are similar, and this is where the Japanese political system has found common ground on not just with Modi, but India as a whole. The strength of the relationship was highlighted even further during Abe’s visit to New Delhi in January where India invited Japan to participate in infrastructure projects in the country’s North East, a region very close to on-going border disputes between India and China. 

Both countries are also looking to be developmental partners in other countries. Japan is already one of the biggest foreign aid donors in the world. With India entering the world of foreign aid in 2012 under a single agency, the Development Partnership Administration (DPA), New Delhi and Tokyo will have a chance to work together in countries such as Myanmar which has now opened its doors to global commerce. Such policies will benefit both countries economically and strategically. 

Abe with his famous (and equally contested) economic strategy fondly called ‘Abenomics’ is seen in same light as to Modi’s ‘Gujarat model,’ on back of which he ran his prime ministerial bid and won. Even though Japan and India shared very close relations under the now former UPA-II government of Manmohan Singh as well, the personal touch that Abe and Modi will bring to the table now may see a historic boost in ties between the two countries.

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