Modi’s Japan visit: Buddha diplomacy at work
by Ashok B Sharma on 31 Aug 2014 3 Comments

Marketing Buddha has become the cornerstone of the Modi government’s foreign policy in Southeast and East Asia. The policy holds good even for sub-regional cooperation in South Asia. The first visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to a South Asian country was to the predominantly Buddhist neighbour Bhutan, and then to Nepal, where Gautam Buddha was born. And now, Japan, his first visit to a country of his choice outside South Asia, is significant.


Before his departure, the Prime Minister said his “visit will write a new chapter in the annals of the relations between Asia’s two oldest democracies and take our Strategic and Global Partnerships to the next higher level.” He has tweeted in Japanese saying he has very warm memories of previous visits to Japan - twice as chief minister of Gujarat - and that this time he intends to interact with all sections of Japanese society from students, political leaders to captains of industry. Japan is the only country that remained a partner country for all the Vibrant Gujarat Summits.


To understand Mr Modi’s Buddha diplomacy, one needs to note that he selected Kyoto in Japan as the first city he would land in as Prime Minister and that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe would come down to meet him there. Kyoto is known for the confluence of Indian and Japanese civilisational heritage through Buddhism. Mr Modi’s visit to the Toji temple again symbolises the confluence of Indian and Japanese civilisation commonalities regarding Buddhism. Kyoto, in Japanese lexicon, is known as a smart city which is environment friendly and preserves its heritage along with cutting edge technology. Mr Modi’s vision to develop 100 smart cities in India prompts him to seek Japanese assistance.


Mr Modi links Kyoto to his political constituency, the ancient city of Varanasi, and feels that both cities should share their experiences. He is interested in the stem cell research being carried out in Kyoto University.


Buddha diplomacy may bring India closer to Japan, particularly in defence and civil nuclear cooperation. There have been recent changes in Japan’s defence export policies and regulations and there are hopes of a new era of cooperation in high-end defence technology and equipment. Significant progress has been made in negotiations on civil nuclear cooperation, purchase of US-2 amphibian aircraft and feasibility study on Mumbai-Ahmedabad bullet train route. Malabar 2014 India-US-Japan trilateral naval drill was a success last month. This trilateral cooperation is an issue which Mr Modi intends to take up not only with Prime Minister Abe but also with US President Obama when he meets him in Washington later next month.


Trade and investment, development assistance, education and culture are also on agenda for the India-Japan Summit talks in Tokyo. Unfortunately, no Cabinet Minister is accompanying Mr Modi; the Japanese side will be represented by its finance minister, foreign minister, defence minister, economy, trade and industry minister, land, infrastructure, transport and tourism minister, and led by Prime Minister Abe. Prime Minister Modi is, however, being accompanied by National Security Advisor Ajit Kumar Doval, Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh, Secretary, Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion, Amitabh Kant and Expenditure Secretary Ratan Watal.   


Mr Modi has found an unique opportunity to hard sell the concept of Buddhist tourism in India. To give a fillip to attracting tourists, plans are afoot to fast track development of the first phase of the Buddhist Tourist Circuit in the country. The resurrection of the ancient Nalanda University has invited participation by major Buddhist countries. The first two schools of Nalanda University - the School of Historical Studies and the School of Ecology and Environment Studies – are slated to begin programmes from the academic year September 2014. Among other Southeast Asian countries, Singapore will be contributing towards the library of the university.


The planned Buddhist Tourist Circuit encompasses and follows the footsteps of Lord Buddha from the place of his birth in Lumbini in Nepal to Piprahwa in Uttar Pradesh where he spent his childhood, Bodhgaya in Bihar where he attained enlightenment, Sarnath in Uttar Pradesh where he delivered his first sermon and Kushinagar in the same state where he attained Mahaparinirvana. In the next phase, the Buddhist Tourist Circuit will cover 17 states, including Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Odisha.


Mr Modi’s recent visit to Nepal was the first visit by an Indian Prime Minister in 17 years. Here he drew parallels between Somnath, Kashi Viswanath and Pashupatinath. He offered assistance for the development of Janakpur, Baraha Chhetra and Lumbini and linking these with the Buddhist Tourist Circuit in India, on the basis of specific proposals from Nepal. Nepal has requested India to allow three additional air entry points at Janakpur, Bhairahawa and Nepalgunj.


External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj’s recent visits to Singapore, Vietnam and to Myanmar for the 21st ASEAN Regional Forum Meeting and 4th East Asia Foreign Ministers’ Meeting has already set to tone for the NDA government’s future interaction with East Asian countries.  


The Indo-Pacific region has emerged as a key point in the rebalancing of power equations in the world. India has an important role to play in the region. Shortly after his return from Japan, Mr Modi is expected to host Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbot; Australia is presently the chair of the Indian Ocean Rim Association. The Chinese President Xi Jinping is also scheduled to visit India soon. It is to be seen how Mr Modi’s Buddha diplomacy works out for the region. 

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