Abe invites new Indian PM Modi to make Japan his first stop

Japanese leader hopes Modi victory will open business opportunities in energy-hungry India

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 20 May, 2014, 10:43pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 20 May, 2014, 10:43pm

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has swiftly invited incoming Indian leader Narendra Modi to make Tokyo the destination of his first overseas trip.

Abe spent 15 minutes talking with Modi by phone on Friday, according to Japan's foreign ministry, during which he congratulated the incoming Indian leader on his Bharatiya Janata Party's resounding election win and expressed his desire to improve the bilateral relationship.

From Tokyo's point of view, India is an increasingly important market for Japanese firms and talks are already under way to export nuclear technology to the energy-hungry nation. Japan is also keen to sell other infrastructure know-how to developing nations, including high-speed train networks.

Arguably more important for Japan is the creation of a coalition of nations throughout the Asia-Pacific that will work together to face down China as it makes increasingly belligerent territorial claims.

Vietnam and the Philippines are already aligned with Japan, in large part due to the ongoing frictions in the South China Sea. Some hoped India - which has had its own territorial disagreements with China - might become a valuable new ally .

But analysts believe there is unlikely to be a major change in direction on India's attitude towards China, which Jun Okumura, a visiting scholar at the Meiji Institute for Global Affairs, characterises as "a gradual but limited development of the bilateral security relationship".

"The youth vote propelled Modi and his BJP to a lower house majority, and to fix the hidebound, stalling domestic economy," Okumura said. "For that, he needs more trade and more investment, and he will welcome all-comers, including China.

"He will do his best to avoid being sidetracked by issues that have no upside in that direction."

And while there has been a "mutual attraction" between Japan and India that has been largely free of geopolitical disagreement, it is doubtful that Modi will invest heavily in a closer relationship in a way that would look like a deliberate snub to China, he said.

While Abe would undoubtedly like to see Modi make Tokyo his first overseas stop, that occasion is likely to be reserved for the BRICs summit in Brazil in July, Okumura believes.

"The one wild card ... is the possibility that the Chinese People's Liberation Army might decide to test the mettle of the new Modi administration," he added. "Or, to state the matter more plausibly, any clash - deliberate or accidental - would correctly be seen as a test of the Modi adminstration's mettle.

"That would leave the Modi administration no choice but to step up India's geopolitical game and reach out more forcefully to China's 'frenemies', if only for the sake of domestic consumption," he said.

"That would be a move the Abe administration would welcome and respond to with efforts to further enhance security ties."