A 500-km trip by their prime minister to welcome him, two separate state banquets and several smiling photo opportunities. Why are the Japanese wooing Narendra Modi?
There’s no denying that Japanese PM Shinzo Abe genuinely appears to like his Indian counterpart, and the feeling is visibly mutual. But that can only go so far in furthering ties between two robust democracies.
The more important reasons lie in a desire to keep China off balance, and pure commerce. Anti-Chinese feeling has grown rapidly in Japan under Abe, and the nationalistic PM wants to build coalitions against perceived hegemony by the new regional bully.
“Japan has one major card to play against the Chinese -- its alliance with the United States. In that sense, India is a becoming a good card for the Japanese,” said Takenori Horimoto, a professor at the Graduate School of Asian and African studies in Kyoto University.
But this approach has its limitations. To most Asian eyes, India evokes less fear and awe than the Chinese, militarily and economically. And Modi, a commerce-minded PM if there ever was one, hosts Chinese President Xi Jinping late September and is keenly aware of the need to engage in trade with his neighbour.
For all the coldness of the relationship, China accounts for one-fifth of Japan’s exports. Exports to India are a tiny 1.2% of the total. Japanese investment in India between 2000 and 2014 is about 8% of the total, at around $16 billion, suggesting that there’s plenty of headroom.
For all the hype around the civilian nuclear deal, it makes good sense for the Japanese to pitch for their share in a huge Indian infrastructure pie. Potentially, India could be an anchor client for a reviving Japanese military industry, but anything that smells even faintly of remilitarisation faces resistance here.
A man ideally placed to comment on Japan’s stance vis-à-vis India and China preferred to keep the two relationships separate. “India will be put in a very awkward position if we say we will use India as a counter to China,” said Sakutaro Tanino, former Japanese ambassador to India and China. “We shouldn’t mix the two relationships.”
Instead, Tanino pointed to the need to deepen people to people relationships — the number of Chinese students in Japan were about 80,000 against about 500 Indians, and Chinese papers had 50 resident correspondents here against none from India.
“We like you and you like us, but there is a great deal more we can do together,” he said.