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Why an India-Japan nuclear deal is essential

August 27, 2010 14:28 IST

An India-Japan civil nuclear pact would be critical in signalling that they would like to build a partnership to bring stability to the region at a time when China is going all out to reward Pakistan with civilian nuclear reactors, says Harsh V Pant.

Japanese Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada was in Delhi recently for the fourth round of India-Japan strategic dialogue and made it clear that negotiations on civilian nuclear cooperation pact are going to be rather difficult.

There are indications that negotiations on the pact between Japan and India have stalled and it now looks unlikely that this pact would be signed during the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's visit to Japan in October as originally planned. India and Japan started discussions on the possibility of Japan signing a civil nuclear agreement with India in June. This was a significant move for Japan that has long been critical of Indian nuclear policy. Though India-Japan ties have blossomed in recent years on a whole range of issues, the nuclear issue has been a major irritant in the relationship.

The Indian nuclear tests of 1998 marked the lowest point in bilateral relations with Japan reacting strongly to the nuclearisation of the sub-continent. Tokyo suspended economic assistance for three years as well as put on hold all political exchanges between the two nations. Japan's economic measures against India included freezing of grant aid for new projects, suspension of yen loans, withdrawal of Tokyo as a venue for India Development Forum, a 'cautious examination' of loans to India by international financial institutions and imposition of strict control over technology transfers.

Japan took the lead in various international fora like the G-8 in condemning nuclear tests by India and Pakistan while the Japanese Diet (parliament) described the tests as constituting a threat to the very survival of human beings.

This strong reaction from Japan was in many ways understandable given that the Japanese are the only people to have experienced the brutality of nuclear weapons and that experience has continued to shape their world-view. Yet, many in India saw the Japanese reaction as hypocritical given that India's genuine security concerns were brushed aside even as Japan itself enjoyed the security guarantee of the US nuclear umbrella.

As many in India see it, Japan's commitment to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, in many ways, remains predicated upon its reliance on American nuclear deterrence.

The US-India civilian nuclear energy cooperation pact has, however, changed the nuclear realities and Japan is trying to come to grips with India's new nuclear power status.

Though Japan has supported the US-India civilian nuclear energy cooperation treaty, there remain differences between Japan and India on the nuclear issue. Japan continues to insist that India sign the NPT and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty whereas India has no intention of doing so given its long-standing concerns regarding the discriminatory nature of these treaties.

Current Japanese law allows nuclear exports only to states that unlike India are either a party to the NPT or allow the International Atomic Energy Agency to safeguard all its nuclear facilities. If India decides to go in for more nuclear tests in the future, the Japanese government of the day would be forced to respond in a manner that may be inimical to India-Japan ties.

The Nuclear Suppliers Group approved the US-India nuclear pact in 2008 in which Japan went with the consensus that India's nuclear record warrants its support for the deal. There has been a gradual evolution in the Japanese approach towards the Indian nuclear capability. It refused to view the US-India nuclear pact as a danger to the global non-proliferation framework and was not an obstacle in the decision of the NSG to amend its guidelines enabling India to trade in nuclear technology and fuel.

But the Japanese government ruled out any civilian nuclear technology transfer to India, at least for the time being, as domestic sentiment in Japan remains strongly anti-nuclear.

Since securing NSG approval, India has signed civilian nuclear cooperation agreements with states as diverse as Britain, France, Russia, Kazakhstan, Namibia, Angola and most recently, Canada. Many in Japan argue that that it would be foolhardy for Japan not to be part of this larger trend. Given the involvement of Japanese firms in the US and French nuclear industry, an Indo-Japanese pact is essential if US and French civilian nuclear cooperation with India is to be realised.

Japanese approval is needed if GE-Hitachi and Toshiba-Westinghouse are to sell nuclear reactors to India. Given the benefits that Japanese nuclear industry will reap from such a deal, it should not be a surprise that Japanese Atomic Energy Agency and its ministry of economics, trade and industry have pulled out all stops in support of the deal.

But the anti-nuclear sentiment remains a powerful force in Japan and the Nagasaki declaration, issues on August 9 to mark the dropping of nuclear weapons on the city, specifically underlined Indo-Japanese negotiations on the nuclear pact. It berated the Japanese government for "promoting negotiations on a nuclear agreement with India, a non-NPT member country with nuclear weapons" and argued that Japan "is now severely weakening the NPT regime, which is beyond intolerable."

In light of this staunch opposition to the nuclear pact, the Japanese government has asked India to include the statement that Delhi made to assuage the concerns of the NSG members in Vienna in 2008 as part of the agreement. India's statement at the NSG meeting had basically re-affirmed India's no-first-use policy, committed India to work towards a successful completion of the Fissile Missile Cut-Off Treaty and strengthening of export-control policies to prevent the spread of sensitive technologies.

Despite Japanese demands, it is unlikely that India will agree to formalise these commitments and will insist that much like other states with which it had concluded similar nuclear pacts, the 123 agreement that it has signed with the US should form the basis of its pact with Tokyo.

The commercial dimension of the pact is certainly significant but much more important is the political symbolism accompanying the deal at a time when the rise of China is upending the regional and global balance of power. An India-Japan civil nuclear pact would be critical in signalling that they would like to build a partnership to bring stability to the region at a time when China is going all out to reward Pakistan with civilian nuclear reactors, putting the entire non-proliferation regime in jeopardy.

Tokyo and Delhi have a great opportunity to re-balance the strategic mile in Asia-Pacific and opportunities like this do not knock twice. Japan and India may very well decide to put things off until tomorrow but that tomorrow may never come.

Harsh V Pant