Journalist | Writer | Analyst
22 October 2008
India will wait till Japan is “ready” for nuclear cooperation
The Japanese side has been keen to expand security cooperation with India
Tokyo: Japan was one of the eight countries — alongside China — to hold out till the end on the waiver for India at the Nuclear Suppliers Group meeting in Vienna last month and is in no hurry to embrace the idea of nuclear cooperation with New Delhi. But Indian officials say that as far as they are concerned, there are at present no legal obstacles to Japanese firms like Hitachi and Toshiba supplying reactor components for safeguarded nuclear power projects in India.
According to senior Indian officials, a bilateral nuclear cooperation agreement between the two countries is not on the agenda and will not be the subject of discussion between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his Japanese counterpart Taro Aso when the two leaders meet here on Wednesday. The officials said India was mindful of the special sensitivity nuclear issues had in Japan. “When it comes to [nuclear] cooperation between us, when they are ready, we are ready,” a senior official told reporters. He said more time was needed for everyone to factor in the changes that had been ushered in as a result of the NSG’s decision to allow nuclear commerce with India. “It’s not just a question of Japan, this is new for everybody, including for us. So don’t expect a big bang.”
Indian officials concede that Japan is internally divided on the question of nuclear cooperation with India. Under corporate pressure, the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) favours a more liberal approach towards India. But the Ministry of Foreign Affairs — as well as Japanese civil society — is continuing to stick to a hardline non-proliferation stance in which any encouragement to civil nuclear energy in India is seen as tantamount to legitimising India’s nuclear weapons programme.
As Foreign Minister in 2006, Mr. Aso had told a Diet panel that the U.S.-India nuclear agreement could weaken the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. In an interview to PTI on Tuesday, he sidestepped a question on whether Japanese firms would be allowed to export nuclear components to India, saying only that “Japan has pursued steadily the construction of nuclear power plants, while making an effort to conform with” non-proliferation standards and “seeking international understanding and trust.” At the same time, he did plug Japanese capabilities in the field, saying, “Japan’s nuclear industry, which has a solid record of constructing power plants even during difficult times for the industry, is one of the most experienced and the most advanced industries.”
Japan’s reluctance to countenance cooperation with India in civil nuclear matters became evident last month when the Third Japan-India Energy Dialogue steered clear of any concrete discussion on the subject. The dialogue, held in Tokyo on September 17 between Deputy Chair of the Planning Commission Montek Singh Ahluwalia and Toshihiro Nikai of METI envisaged cooperation only in conservation and efficiency, coal, oil and natural gas.
The only concession to nuclear was a reference to the NSG’s September 6 waiver and a promise to “exchange views and information of their respective nuclear energy policy.” At the same time, the door to nuclear cooperation was kept slightly ajar, with the two emphasising that “bilateral cooperation based on the Japan-India Energy Dialogue will not be limited to what has been identified above and that [the two countries would] continue to further deepen their bilateral cooperation.”
Speaking about the bilateral relationship and the growing economic and political cooperation between the two countries, Indian officials accompanying the Prime Minister on his official visit here said Japan, in recent years, had obviously made a “strategic bet” on India. Thirty per cent of all of Japan’s foreign aid was now directed at India and “not a single week goes by without a Japanese business delegation coming to India,” an official noted.
Admitting the proposed Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement had hit a temporary roadblock on the questions of agriculture, pharmaceuticals and country-of-origin rules, the officials said this was hardly surprising given the very different economies the two countries had. “But we’ve made tremendous progress since January 2007.” Japan, they said, was “tightly protectionist” but New Delhi could not afford to take a holier-than-thou attitude since it was asking Tokyo to do many things that it was itself reluctant to do.
Japan has seen five prime ministers in as many years and is heading for elections again soon. Despite this, however, there has been no let-up in the expansion of ties with India across a wide number of areas. Indian officials say the Japanese proposals to help finance the country’s western freight and industrial corridors will give a new thrust to economic ties, which is still seen as the backbone of the bilateral relationship.
But if India’s other preoccupation is energy and nuclear power, Japan has tended to be fairly security-oriented in its approach to New Delhi.
In his book, A Beautiful Country, the former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe described India as a key component of a new Asian order whose other pillars would be Japan, Australia and the United States. Mr. Aso, who as Foreign Minister in Mr. Abe’s government actively canvassed for a trilateral security dialogue linking Delhi, Tokyo and Washington, is also a proponent of this sort of Sino-centric architecture.
The Japanese side has been keen to expand security cooperation with India beyond the current level of bilateral visits, exchanges and exercises. Indian officials said Dr. Singh and Mr. Aso would issue a joint declaration on security on Wednesday.
In a statement just before his departure for Tokyo on Tuesday, Prime Minister Singh described ties with Japan as “one of the most important bilateral relationships we have.” He added that a strong India-Japan relationship “will play a significant role in the emerging Asian security architecture and will contribute to the peace, stability and prosperity of Asia and the world.”
Though nuclear cooperation is not a bilateral priority right now, India feels there is enough economic and political momentum to propel the relationship to a level where Tokyo may also eventually come around to seeing merit in working with India in the civil nuclear field.
In any case, since Japanese export regulations tend to be more administrative than statute-based, Indian officials say Japanese entities would be able to send safeguarded nuclear components to India without the approval of the Diet. At any rate, this has been India’s experience on non-nuclear high technology trade. Since January 2006, India and Japan have held three rounds of discussions on the easing of restrictions, leading to seven India entities being taken off Tokyo’s export blacklist.
According to the authoritative trade newsletter Nuclear Fuel, however, trade between India and Japan may not be that straightforward a matter.
Quoting Japanese industry and diplomatic sources, the newsletter said the two countries “must conclude a bilateral nuclear trade agreement in order for Japanese nuclear industry firms to sell [NSG] trigger-list items to India.”
The two principal Japanese nuclear vendors are Hitachi, which partners GE, and Toshiba, which owns the American nuclear supplier, Westinghouse. Other firms like Mitsubishi also manufacture nuclear components like pressure vessels for nuclear reactors.
These firms, says Nuclear Fuel, “may not export to India equipment triggering IAEA safeguards under the Zangger Committee export control list without a bilateral cooperation agreement between Japan and India.” Current Japanese law, it said, allowed nuclear exports only to countries that were either a party to the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) or allowed the International Atomic Energy Agency to safeguard all its nuclear facilities.
But a nuclear cooperation agreement Japan signed with China before Beijing’s accession to the NPT may serve as a precedent for India, said Nuclear Fuel, quoting unidentified “experts”.
While not ruling out the desirability of a bilateral cooperation agreement, Indian officials say the NSG’s new guidelines were expected to simplify matters considerably. “Many Zangger Committee countries take the view that its requirements have been subsumed by the NSG, so now that India has a waiver, a bilateral agreement may no longer be a strict requirement” for safeguarded exports, an official said.