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Showmanship trumps substance during Modi visit


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.

  • Mahesh Bhardwaj

    In my view Japanese media is notorious for not being international. I am not surprised by the lip service give to PM Modi by it, while the craziness of overblown India media is apparent. I am also not surprised by the apprehension of Japanese investors in India due to corruption epidemic in the country. On the other hand, combined with extraordinary oratory skills + massive substance in his messages, PM Modi clearly asks for Japanese help and promises to clean up the horrendous bureaucracy plaguing India. To this effect any India watcher can see he already is doing all this. Mind you India is a horribly complex country still under the grips of feudalism and caste. While it is too early to say, Modi appears to have the personality of becoming a world leader, which modern world does not have and direly needs — particularly in wake of terrorism. Thank you!

    • anju purohit

      world knows that modi is honest that was indias drawback all were corrupt public when corrupt when govt. corrupt remember shastri

  • Vinu

    Whats the Axe that Jeff got to grind, I wonder?

  • parijat chauhan

    Somebody has rubbed chilli powder to Jeff kingston ass :D

  • anju purohit

    west never wants india to be powerful it should be weak with weak leaders how obama praised manmohon when results were comming out his freindship why knowing modi is not manmohan or sonia who can be dealt easily west tries hard to show deliberatly talk in way that india is nothing and that they have help from our so called elite gournos who think its previleged that they are asked do western media allow indians to interfere or ask their opinion what this writer wrote about modi same way they must be treating all well now modi can give them back in their own plate what they give modi he is taking time to adjust then real modi will show as he himself is a worker not a ruler who gives orders so be ready for whether world likes or hates modi but people that aam janta has given modi jai ho

    • slayer

      Haha….Japan is not west fool.

  • Ravan Singh

    The pun intended is noted.
    Yes, we need to fix ourselves. Yes, this has to be done by none other than us. Yes, we will undo the barbaric loot of Brits. Yes, we will reclaim our lost glory.
    Talk to you in a decade. Jai ho!

    • Chantu Bantu

      only if modi is elected again.. otherwise, all waste!!

  • Kahula

    Obviously, those commenting here haven’t bothered to wonder what INDIA can offer any economically well-developed countries, including Japan or Australia. Sure, we can invite them to set up business here, but Honda, GM, Chevorlet, Nokia et al have their back -end processes in India. The Int’l community knows India’s reputation & will not interact with India, unless its to draw cheap skilled labour.

    • Guest

      things change my friend. For over 18 centuries our economic state was on top. By mentioning it I am not being ignorant of current state of Indian economy. We are on path of being developed country and for that we will have to learn from already developed country like Japan. But it does not mean we need Japan more than Japan needs us. There is thing called strategic alliance and security concerns. India is positioning itself as balance to china. Many smaller countries are supposrting India. What India at this time is offering is balance in power in asia. For that Japan needs India.
      So yes I understand you are stating a fact about India but at the same time you are being ignorant.

      • Kahula

        U forget a basic fact – corruption. Asian cou tries are corrupt without exception, yet why are we lagging? Most Chinese or “Asian” people don’t know English yet they’re more proactive in making sure their countries are seen in a positive light. India buys from China, you know why? Because we don’t pursue excellence. You won’t find any other Asian business telling it’s clients that it can’t do business for the day coz it’s employees couldn’t come due to a film star dying hence riots- it’s happened. Maybe you should study the people first before using too many big words. The world already has intelligent hardworking Indians they don’t need The Nation.

  • nirmalya

    Journalism at its best – fearless, nothing but the truth.

    • Guest

      Modi can only be exposed by the international media. Back home in India, it’s all manufactured PR fed to the gullible masses.

      Pity his “bhakts” (blind followers) who have elevated him to the position of a god. When their beloved god fails, it will be traumatic for most.

      • Chantu Bantu

        you nutcrack.. did you even read the article?? what is there to be exposed?? the only thing it exposes is that Modi is trying to undo what congress has done for last ten years.. this sentiment of investors happened because of the fukin congress ruining the country.. and he is trying his best to undo what those mofos did and bring in more investors.. what else did you expect him to do??

        you tell me.. if you’re so smart.. what should he do??

  • Rishi

    What people fail to know is that this man Mr Modi has a track record of delivering even in hostile circumstances ( the UPA govt in the center ). Major Japanese companies are fast loosing their leadership position to their competitors… Sony to SamSung & LG… Honda to Tesla… the IT era has totally passed Japan by…

    China is beginning to catch up with them in infrastructure tech… Train system for e.g… Message is quite clearly there on the wall for all to read… Change your 20th century thought process or this information era of 21st century will simply knock you down on the ground and pass you bye. It is true for both Japan and India…

    Thinking of dictating terms to any country especially a country like India in today’s age is beyond foolish… If Japanese companies are not able to find traction in Indian market competitors will fill in… its the nature of business… In 10 yrs from now under Modi’s leadership this country will emerge as best business destination in the world and perhaps 3rd largest economy in the world. Those who miss the bus would surly read history and bang their heads in regret…