New Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is likely to visit Japan next month, the Indian foreign ministry said on Friday, in a boost for Tokyo as it looks to shore up regional alliances and counter an increasingly assertive China.
Modi, whose Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party won a landslide victory in last month’s elections, is set to make his maiden foreign trip as premier to neighboring Bhutan later this month.
Indian foreign ministry spokesman Syed Akbaruddin said that while the South Asian “neighborhood remains India’s priority,” Japan has offered to host Modi soon and is likely to take up the invitation next month.
Meanwhile, Modi’s first trip to the US is “most likely” to be in September, Akbaruddin added.
The world is closely watching Modi’s first moves as leader of the world’s biggest democracy, and a visit would be a boost for Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as he seeks to raise Asian support to counter China’s increasing regional assertiveness.
New Delhi, like Tokyo, has a long-running territorial dispute with Beijing, whose growing military confidence is causing disquiet in Asia and beyond.
China is in a row with Japan over ownership of several islands in the East China Sea, and at odds with India over a long-running border dispute that flared into a brief war in 1961.
The Asian giant is also locked in tense maritime territorial rows with neighbors in the South China Sea, which Beijing and Taipei claim almost in its entirety.
The US, Japan’s key ally, is concerned about China’s growing economic and military clout and would welcome a closer relationship between New Delhi and Tokyo, which geographically bookend Beijing.
Trade between India and Japan has steadily increased over the past decade, with the pair signing a free-trade pact in 2011.
Modi swept to power on a pledge to invigorate India’s sluggish economy, whose more-than-billion-strong population promises a huge potential market.
With its decrepit roads and other infrastructure, India is also a natural market for Japan’s huge infrastructure firms and has been the recipient of frequent development aid and loans.
Japanese media had suggested that Modi could visit as early as this month, with the increasingly precarious Asian security situation high on the agenda, along with a potential deal on nuclear power technology.
“[Japanese] Prime Minister Abe has invited new [Indian] Prime Minister Modi to visit Japan, and the two countries are making final adjustments for that,” Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters in Tokyo on Friday.
Abe and Modi exchanged friendly greetings on Twitter after his landslide win. The new Indian leader visited Japan twice before coming to power in 2007 and in 2012.
Meanwhile, Modi’s first trip to the US as prime minister is not to take place until later in the year.
Washington’s ties with Modi have been complicated by a US ban on him traveling to the country after deadly 2002 anti-Muslim riots swept the western state of Gujarat, where he was chief minister for more than a dozen years.
Modi, accused by rights activists of turning a blind eye to the bloodshed, has never been found guilty of any wrongdoing by an Indian tribunal in connection with the riots.
Analysts have suggested the previous anti-Modi mood in Washington might hamper future friendship between the two countries.