Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Geopolitical loving: When Abe met Modi

The Oilholic finds himself roughly 6,000 miles east of London in Tokyo, Japan. While yours truly is here for cultural and ‘crude’ pursuits, another visitor was in town to firm up a crucial strategic tie-up. It was none other than India’s recently elected Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who popped in to see Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe.

There’s been something of a political loving between these two heads of state. Abe hardly follows anyone on Twitter; Modi being one of the only four people he currently does follow! The Japanese PM was the first among international counterparts to congratulate Modi following his stunning mandate after elections in India. If you think that’s not a big deal, well US President Barack Obama got a welcoming handshake from Abe; NHK footage of Modi’s arrival in Japan shows one heck of a ‘best pal’ Abe-Modi bear hug. Protocol and formality not required between friends seems to be the message.

It is only Modi’s second and most prominent foreign visit since he assumed office this year; no offence to Nepal which was the first destination of his choice. Both leaders lean right, though the Indian PM’s right-wing credentials are stronger in a strictly domestic sense. The Japanese and Indian media went positively ballistic over the visit, atop giving it front-page stuff prominence. It’s extraordinary for all of this to be related to a bilateral meeting between two heads of state, with no priors, unless there was a collaborative attitude behind the scenes.

Any analyst worth his/her weight would note that at the heart of it is a move to counterbalance China, a country that has an uneasy relationship with both India and Japan. As if to underscore the point, Modi, visibly moved with the superb reception he received, criticised the “expansionist” maritime agenda of certain states. Wonder who he could possibly be referring to with the South China Sea so close-by?

Both countries are wary of China, have similar economic problems (cue inflationary concerns) and remain major importers of natural resources. As if for good measure, throw religion into the mix as Japan’s primary faith – Buddhism – was founded in the Indian subcontinent. So finding common ground or the pretext of a common ground is not hard for Abe and Modi.

Now is the Abe-Modi summit a big deal? In the Oilholic’s opinion, the answer is yes. We’ll come to natural resources and ‘crude’ matters shortly, but hear this out first – Japan is to invest US$34 billion spread over the next five years in terms of deal valuation. The trade between the two is insipid at the moment, either side of 1% of the total export pile in each case with the Japanese exporting marginally more than they’re importing from India. That makes the announcement a very positive development.

Japan, according to both men, could turn to India for its rare earth needs, a market led by China. While claims of India becoming a wholesale manufacturing base for Japanese electronics and engineering giants are a bit overblown, to quote the Indian PM: “We see a new era of cooperation in high-end defence technology and equipment.”

As for exchanging views on inflation - India’s, until recently was out of control and has only just been somewhat reigned in with the country's economy starting to gain momentum. Japan's on the other hand, “Abenomics” or not, has not managed to gain momentum (economy has shrunk in annualised terms last quarter by 6.8%). Inflation, thanks to a sales tax rise which came into effect in April, is not under control either with the country’s Consumer Prices Index (CPI) up 3.4% in July. That's well above the Bank of Japan’s target rate of 2%.

Given both countries are major importers of crude oil and natural gas, even a minor price rise has a major knock-on effect right from the point of importation to further down the consumer chain. At the moment, both are benefitting from a two-month decline in oil prices. Both PMs think they can work together towards the procurement of liquefied natural gas, according to an Indian source. The idea of two major importers strategising together sounds good, but concrete details are yet to be released.

If there was one hiccup, the two sides did not reach an agreement over the transfer of nuclear technology to India. Politics aside, Japan for its part is still grappling with the effects of Fukushima on all fronts - legal, natural and physical. Tepco, the company which operated the plant, is still in courts. The latest lawsuit - by workers demanding compensation - is a big one.

But not to digress, how did the men describe the summit themselves? For Modi, it was an “upgrade” in bilateral relations. For Abe, it was “a meeting of minds”. China would, and should, view it very differently. There is one not-so-mute point. Abe did not take any direct or indirect swipes at China, Modi (as mentioned above) was not so restrained. One wonders if in Modi’s quest for geopolitical rebalancing in Asia, would it serve in India well to improve relations with Japan and let them deteriorate with China?

That’s all the contemplation from Tokyo for the moment folks. The Oilholic is heading to Hong Kong, albeit briefly, after a gap of over a decade. Its a sunny day here at Narita Airport as one takes off. More soon, keep reading, keep it ‘crude’!

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© Gaurav Sharma 2014. Photo 1: Tokyo Bay Waterfront. Photo 2: Narita International Aiport, Japan © Gaurav Sharma, September 2014.

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