The South Asia Channel

Big in Japan: Why Abe is Rooting for a Modi Win

When Shinzo Abe led the Liberal Democratic Party to a landslide victory in the December 2012 Japanese general elections, one of the many congratulatory messages he received from world leaders -- and one that went largely unnoticed -- was from Narendra Modi, the chief minister of the Indian state of Gujarat. A phone conversation between the Japanese prime minister and the Gujarat chief minister is odd by strict standards of protocol, but it underscores how the personal relationship between the two men and the economic partnership between Japan and Gujarat has thrived over the years.

Recent polls show that Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the principal opposition to the ruling Congress party, is well positioned to win the greatest number of seats in India's upcoming parliamentary elections. If Modi becomes India's next prime minister, his rise could also vault the strategic India-Japan relationship to a position of unprecedented importance.

The economic success story between Japan and Gujarat is one of politics driving business. Modi's administration began pursuing a vigorous "Look East" policy courting Japan after the West, led by the United States, closed its doors to Modi in 2005 for his controversial role as chief minister during the 2002 Gujarat riots that killed more than 1,000 people. His visit to Japan in 2007 was an icebreaker of sorts, opening new investment channels between the Indian state and a foreign country.

In the years since, Gujarat's administrative efficiency and investor-friendly climate have rapidly attracted Japanese investments, with significant investment flowing into mega infrastructure projects. Suzuki, the Japanese auto giant, is already setting up new plants and ancillary units in the region, and private Japanese investment in Gujarat is expected to total $2 billion by 2015-2016. The investment spree is not restricted to Japanese multinationals. In 2009, the Japan External Trade Organisation (JETRO), a trade and investment agency under the Japanese government, partnered with Gujarat to organize the Vibrant Gujarat Global Investors Summit, a mini-Davos showcase event to attract foreign investment. Japan was designated "partner country" to the summit and represented by a senior delegation led by the Japanese ambassador.

Japan's current policy establishment enjoys strong working relations with Modi. The extent of the relationship became clear when, during an official visit in 2012, the Japanese government accorded Modi protocol befitting a cabinet minister of the union (a more highly ranked position than chief minister of a state). Coordinating the visit and overseeing the new partnership was Akitaka Saiki, a former Japanese envoy to India and now Japan's top diplomat in the current government. During the visit, Modi made it a point to call on Abe, then in opposition.

Strength in numbers

At a time when the China-Japan relationship is reaching new lows, India now forms the cornerstone of Abe's near-abroad strategy. The desire to expand the India-Japan relationship from its economic bedrock to a higher strategic level is finding greater traction in New Delhi as well.

Japanese Emperor Akihito's recent historic visit to India and Abe's attendance of Republic Day celebrations in New Delhi as India's chief guest point toward a gradual rebalancing taking place in Asia. India's invitation to Japan to take part in the U.S.-India Malabar Naval exercise, to be held later this year, was a more overt manifestation of the evolving strategic partnership. India may also soon become the first country since World War II to buy military aircraft from Japan in a $1.65-billion deal.

It is amid these shifting geopolitical relationships that Modi may ascend to India's top post. The Japanese view the emerging India-Japan relationship as going beyond economic interests and being further strengthened by Japan's special relationship with Gujarat and the mutual respect between Abe and Modi.

Politically, the two could help each other. Economically, Japanese savings are looking for greener shores as Japan battles deflationary pressures. Businesses in India, on the other hand, are hoping that a Modi victory later this year would restart the stalled reform process and revive economic growth, opening new space for Japanese investments. And China's aggressive posturing along its border with India and in the East China Sea presents an obvious rationale for strengthening India-Japan military and strategic relations.

Weakening ties with Washington?

The renewed thrust in India-Japan relations is not only a reaction to China. It is also embedded in the more expansive vision of the U.S.-Japan-Australia-India Quadrilateral Security Dialogue that Abe articulated in 2006.

Abe's "Quad" strategy has acquired a new practical dimension of late. Japan's recent apprehension about the strength of its alliance with Washington is driving Japanese diplomats to forge stronger security relationships with other Asian powers. Despite the U.S. "pivot" to Asia, U.S. relations with India and Japan, the continent's two democratic powers, have hit a rough patch. Abe's visit to the Yasukuni Shrine and his government's moves to extricate Japan from a U.S.-centric security framework have made Washington uneasy.

A similar disquiet also marks the U.S.-India relationship, where diplomatic tensions, trade disputes, and foreign policy divergences on Bangladesh and Afghanistan have garnered more headline space than defense cooperation and strategic gains made after the historic Indo-U.S. Civil Nuclear deal. The current drift in relations is further complicated by Washington's eight-year estrangement with Modi -- a position that was reversed only recently, as the American ambassador to India, Nancy Powell, met with him in mid-February.

From a geopolitical perspective, the two sides of the strategic triangle involving U.S.-India and U.S.-Japan have frayed in recent months. However, the third flank, representing the India-Japan relationship, appears to have entered a new phase of strength and proximity.

This relationship would undoubtedly find greater expression if Modi's fortunes rise. Should Modi be appointed India's next prime minister this summer, expect Tokyo to be his first stop abroad.

Shrey Verma is a master's candidate at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter: @shrey7.