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Modi’s upcoming Japan visit signals closer ties

by Jeff Kingston

Special To The Japan Times

India’s newly elected Prime Minister Narendra Modi is coming to Tokyo in August to meet with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, signaling closer bilateral ties infused by personal chemistry and shared values. The Namo-Shinzo show will be an elaborately choreographed red-carpet extravaganza to highlight the two leaders’ warm bonds. After all, they are Twitter buddies, exchanged election congratulations and have met twice previously in 2007 and 2012.

This will be Modi’s first significant overseas foray, demonstrating that personal bonds make a difference in establishing foreign policy priorities; Washington will have to wait until September. These leaders are ideological soul mates who are both unapologetically pro-business and support welfare for the wealthy, doling out incentives and tax cuts that would bring tears to the eyes of any corporate titan. They also are both ardent nationalists, embracing a more assertive and muscular foreign policy.

And lets not forget they share the same zodiac sign: Virgo.

Modi is celibate, but is considered attractive to the opposite sex, while nobody in Japan thinks about Abe and sex. I consulted an astrological love signs website to see whether they are compatible and found reassuringly that, “Once there is intimacy, these two have the precision to satisfy, and open up to earthly pleasures together.” However, “Virgo’s dark side is the tendency to be the constant critic. Too much emphasis on the plans for progress can put them in high stress mode, and tax an already nervous system. It’s important for them to find ways to relax and be in the moment.” Sage advice.

When they are not chilling, these two Virgos have a lot to talk about — stalled negotiations on a civilian nuclear deal, arms sales, handling a pushier China, Japanese-funded infrastructure projects, and gender empowerment, Abe’s signature empty gesture.

Abe is also keen to develop the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue between Japan, India, the U.S. and Australia. QSD is all about establishing a strategic counterweight to China, but operationalizing this concept has been elusive. Not the least because India doesn’t have the capacity or inclination to serve as a strategic counterweight while Australia’s bottomless punchbowl of booming resource exports depends on China, and Australia is a long way away from the key flashpoints.

India is unhappy with China cozying up to nemesis Pakistan, its “string of pearls” naval strategy in the Indian Ocean and unilateralism in the South China Sea and along the border where China routed Indian forces in 1962. Modi favors fortifying border posts along this disputed boundary and will also continue to support the Tibetan government in exile, so the chances of a Nixon-like breakthrough are slim. Modi may not prove as ardent a Cold War II warrior as Washington would like, but Abe will nurture a strategic partnership, with the two nations serving as regional bookends for the Arc of Anxiety that Chinese muscle-flexing has fostered.

Modi and Abe both won elections promising economic revival, so wariness about China’s hegemonic ambitions mingles with an eagerness to tap its enormous market potential. Beijing’s strategic rise is thus a shared opportunity and quandary.

Earlier this year Abe was an honored guest at Indian Independence Day celebrations, but was unable to finalize drawn-out negotiations over a civilian nuclear agreement. Japan’s nuclear pitchman-in-chief is eager to seal the deal because nuclear energy sales are crucial to his plans to boost Japan’s infrastructure-related exports. In addition, Washington has been pressuring Tokyo to overlook India’s nuclear tests and failure to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The U.S. hopes to nudge India toward becoming a strategic counterweight to China and is eager to profit from its ambitious plans to build numerous nuclear reactors despite strong grassroots opposition. Japan is a key stumbling block in this scenario as its firms produce key reactor components, but can’t supply them without a civilian nuclear agreement. Thus, contracts in India worth more than $60 billion are on hold.

The key stumbling blocks from Tokyo’s perspective are India’s refusal to sign the NPT and its desire for permission to reprocess spent fuel at planned reactors. In May, the Asahi voiced concerns about profits dictating foreign policy, stating, “The Japanese government should not be lured by India’s huge market into rushing to strike a nuclear deal.” It added, “Tokyo should try to persuade the Modi government to join the NPT.” Good luck with that.

I suspect that Abe will cave and explain to Diet colleagues that other Nuclear Supplier Group (NSG) members accepted India’s assurances to Washington about proliferation and weapons testing, so Japan should go along with the waiver and not stand in the way of lucrative contracts. Modi will also seek Abe’s support for India’s NSG membership bid, an organization that was established to isolate and punish India for its nuclear weapons program.

The final sticking point will be liability. In post-Bhopal India, liability is a volatile political issue and it remains to be seen how the new government will finesse this matter. Nuclear vendors are relying on a clause in contracts signed with the Nuclear Power Corporation of India that is designed to insulate them from liability, a proviso that Arun Jaitley once railed against when he was in opposition. But now that he has the finance and defense portfolios in Modi’s Cabinet, one suspects that he may recant.

Abe is also eager to unleash Japan’s arms manufacturers on the global market, and again India is a potentially big prize. Abe is promoting defense cooperation and arms sales, including Shin Maywa’s US-2 amphibious sea reconnaissance-and-rescue plane, and sees India as a customer for the same submarines it has been flogging to Australia. Such sales are now possible because Abe recently terminated the longstanding self-imposed ban on arms exports in order to boost production runs and thus lower per-unit costs.

Modi might be interested in tapping Abe for economic advice as India has been weathering an economic slowdown and high inflation, but it might be a waste of time. Modi already has an impressive track record of helping wealthy businessmen get richer and ignoring the needs of the vulnerable and like Abe is a fan of what Arundathi Roy, novelist and social activist, calls “gush up” economics.

“Modinomics” needs to generate 10 million jobs a year, overcome widespread poverty, cope with the consequences of surging urbanization, improve education and social services, boost a small and inefficient manufacturing sector, attract foreign investment, curb corruption and ease infrastructure bottlenecks while addressing gender, ethnic and religious violence and discrimination.

Alas, “Abenomics” is irrelevant to India’s challenges. So perhaps the best advice Abe can give Modi is in terms of PR, figuring out how to transform ugly truths into pretty illusions. But friends tell me that this is precisely what Modi has done with his record as chief minister in Gujarat, so maybe his spin doctors need no coaching.

Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.

  • sccott

    Bias against modi is so apparent in this article. What happiness does the author again from this?

    Arundati Roy is stupid. And whoever agrees with her must be even more stupid.

    The author might not have even visited gujrath to see Modi’s work on development. But has no problem fabricating information.

  • parijat chauhan

    Author is clearly a modi hater. mention of arundhti roy is proof of his thinnking

  • Chike Senan

    This is quite interesting that one sole Modi is been contrasted
    with every leader of the visiting country. Indian media made close similarities
    with Putin and in the above account with Abe. This is quite interesting that
    one personality is strongly contrasted with leaders of developed countries and
    emphasized to have similarities like the Virgo star. Quite Hilarious! Whatever
    India is doing in foreign trips is based on its national interests particularly
    now a days to get into NSG. The pronounced bilateral ties are nothing else just
    vested interests. There is time to see that what this new government marked a
    difference than the previous one in ending down the Indian dilemmas of common people
    apart from statesmen ambitions.