Commentary / Japan | COUNTERPOINT

Showmanship trumps substance during Modi visit

by Jeff Kingston

Special To The Japan Times

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is re-energizing Indian diplomacy and trying to carve out a more dynamic role for his country in global affairs. He has just wrapped up a visit to Kyoto and Tokyo, playing the role of pitchman-in-chief and holding a summit with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Overall, the Japanese media’s coverage of Modi’s visit was oddly muted despite all the fanfare. This comes in contrast to the extensive coverage Modi’s visit received in the Indian media.

Arriving in Kyoto on Aug. 30, Modi got the personal touch from Abe, who made the trek to Kansai to roll out the red carpet for an Asian leader who shares many of his convictions. This gesture came at a busy time for the Japanese prime minister as he prepared to reshuffle his Cabinet, and tried to fend off criticism over his praise of war criminals and lackluster response to a fatal mudslide in Hiroshima. Guiding Modi around some of Kyoto’s famous temples and hosting a welcome banquet certainly underscored how much importance Abe attached to the Indian leader’s visit.

The trip also marked Modi’s diplomatic debut on the international stage. An Indian journalist told me that Modi received a very warm reception from the overseas Indian community, one that tends to share his right-wing and patriotic outlook. This journalist also said Modi was more relaxed than usual, showing off his crowd-pleasing skills and shedding the more combative demeanor he displays at home where he is a more polarizing figure.

The optics may have been the highlight as both leaders have crack PR teams and know the importance of good photo opportunities, starting with a welcome bear hug, temple tours and a tea ceremony, and Modi showing off his drumming and chopstick skills. Both leaders bonded just the way their handlers choreographed them to, projecting as much friendliness as they could muster.

Modi also met with the Emperor and told him he would improve Japanese language instruction in India to help promote closer ties. But on Japan’s evening news that night, this historic encounter merited barely a minute of coverage and was totally overshadowed by speculation about the Cabinet reshuffle, a Japanese tennis player reaching the quarterfinals at the U.S. Open, lifting of the Hiroshima evacuation order and, longest of all, the surging sales of beer targeting guys with gout.

So why was this much-touted summit an inconclusive washout? Modi and Abe had a lot to talk about: stalled negotiations on a civilian nuclear deal, arms sales, dealing with China, nurturing a strategic relationship, massive infrastructure projects and promoting trade and investment.

But at the end of the day not much happened. The two sides were unable to overcome the impasse over the civilian nuclear energy deal that has been pending for four long years because Japan wants to retain the right to suspend its participation if India conducts nuclear weapons tests and is also reluctant to grant India the right to reprocess spent fuel, even though it agreed to allow Turkey to do so in a deal concluded last year.

India perhaps imagined that Japan would cave in because it offers a potential $85 billion market for new reactors, underestimating just how sensitive the nuclear weapons issue is in Japan. Moreover, Japanese nuclear exporters (Toshiba, Hitachi and Mitsubishi) are allergic to India’s stance on nuclear liability. So the civilian nuclear deal will remain on the leaders’ “to do” list.

More surprising from Tokyo’s perspective was Modi’s reluctance to upgrade regular talks on foreign policy and security affairs to the Cabinet level — the two-plus-two model of talks between foreign and defense ministers, a framework Japan has adopted in talks with the United States and Australia. The Asahi Shimbun speculated that Modi shied from the upgrade due to concerns over angering China, but it seems more likely that India is withholding the two-plus-two deal as a bargaining chip in the broader negotiations.

India isn’t eager to be a strategic counterweight to China in cahoots with Tokyo and Washington. Moreover, Modi and Abe both won elections promising economic revival. These leaders of the second- and third-largest economies in Asia are eager to tap China’s enormous market potential despite concerns over Beijing’s hegemonic ambitions. China after all is the largest trading partner of both nations.

So what was accomplished? Not much beyond some boilerplate pledges that fell far short of commitments. They called for doubling Japanese foreign direct investment (FDI) and the number of Japanese firms operating in India over the next five years.

Currently, India accounts for only 1.2 percent of Japanese FDI. The two sides also reaffirmed the importance of strengthening strategic ties and called for the continuation of joint naval exercises.

There was also more talk about selling the Japanese manufactured US-2 amphibian aircraft, now possible because Abe lifted Japan’s arms export ban. Abe is also eager to sell India the same submarines that Australia intends to purchase.

The biggest lure, however, may well be the urgent need to upgrade India’s dire infrastructure, representing a huge potential market for long-distance shinkansen technology and mass-transit projects in some 30 cities. In order to promote such projects, Abe announced Japan’s intention of providing public and private financing and investments totaling nearly $34 billion over the next five years. Can he deliver?

Following his debut in Japan, Modi returned home to greet Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott and later this month will host a visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping before visiting U.S. President Barack Obama in Washington. For his part, Abe is off on Sept. 6 for visits to Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, where he plans to offer support for social infrastructure projects to counter China’s growing influence.

For this round, Abe and Modi nurtured their personal relationship and the summitry generated momentum toward enhanced cooperation. But tapping the potential for enhanced security cooperation and business ties will require painstaking negotiations to bridge differences. India is pursuing a hedging strategy vis-a-vis China and that places constraints on what will develop with Tokyo.

Moreover, as one Tokyo-based manager of regional real-estate investments told me, he and many other businessmen have zero interest in investing in India because partners there are far less reliable than in China and corruption is far more extortionate.

So Modi may be right that India offers democracy, human resources and a growing market, but that may not be enough to entice foreign participation in the “Rising India” narrative.

Kitakyushu-based washlet firm Toto, however, must be upbeat about market prospects. In his Independence Day speech last month, Modi lamented that half of India’s 1.2 billion people lack toilet access and promised to address this basic need.

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

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