Journalist | Writer | Analyst
August 30, 2014
Japan was going to be the first country he planned to visit as premier but Prime Minister Narendra Modi postponed the trip by a month in the hope that the extra time would allow New Delhi and Tokyo to firm up various deals in the pipeline and cross one big hurdle that had so far proved utterly elusive: A nuclear cooperation agreement.
Although Japan does not manufacture nuclear reactors, Japanese companies like Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Japan Steel Works fabricate crucial components such as reactor vessels for the kind of American and French reactors India has agreed to install. Unless New Delhi and Tokyo sign a nuclear agreement, Areva, Westinghouse and GE will be unable to include Japanese equipment in the reactors they wish to supply to the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd.
Despite the Modi government’s heavy lifting in the past month, a nuclear agreement with Japan continues to remain beyond reach. Indeed, unless the Shinzo Abe government relents on three key sticking points in last-minute negotiations during Modi’s visit, the two sides will have to satisfy themselves with other announcements and deliverables.
If the one-month delay proves fortuitous for the fate of nuclear commerce, the fact that Modi did not visit Tokyo in the first week of July also meant he was able to keep India out of the frontlines of the war of words between Japan and China over Abe’s decision to remove a constitutional bar on the deployment of the Japanese military in the region. But more about that later.
Japan is reluctant to allow India the right to reprocess spent fuel generated from Japanese-origin equipment, it wants inspections which go beyond the scope of India’s safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and it is insisting on the right to take back its equipment if India were to test a nuclear weapon in the future.
Not surprisingly, these were precisely the most difficult obstacles that India and the United States had to overcome during negotiations for their bilateral nuclear cooperation – or ‘123’ – agreement in 2007.
Washington accepted India’s right to reprocess US-origin spent fuel, provided the reprocessing was done in a standalone, safeguarded facility, and signed a separate agreement on the required procedures in 2010. On inspections, India refused to accept anything other than IAEA safeguards but agreed to give the US the “right of return”, after layering the process with conditions so onerous and ambiguous that the actualisation of this right would be next to impossible.
If Tokyo is serious about nuclear cooperation with India, it can do no better than to use the India-US 123 Agreement, or even the draft India-Australia nuclear cooperation agreement, as a template. It is true the US-India agreement is, in some respects, less restrictive than its US-Japan equivalent; but that is only because India has nuclear weapons and remains outside the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) while Japan is a non-nuclear weapon state, is a signatory to the NPT, and is obliged to follow the IAEA’s full-scope safeguards regime.
India, which went through a wrenching debate over the nuclear agreement with the US, has already gone the furthest it could in accepting the provisions of the 123 agreement. In addition, it made solemn non-proliferation commitments to the Nuclear Suppliers Group in exchange for the lifting of sanctions in 2008. As far as Japan’s insistence on Indian accession to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) is concerned, former prime minister Manmohan Singh assured one of Abe’s predecessors, Yukio Hatoyama, in January 2010 that although there was as yet no consensus within the country on signing the treaty, American and Chinese ratification would “create a new situation” for India. There is also the earlier assurance by Atal Behari Vajpayee as prime minister that India would not stand in the way of the CTBT entering into force.
Taken together, there is ample material for Japan to draw upon in its quest for an agreement with India that fully addresses its own national sensitivities on nuclear matters – provided, of course, Japan’s domestic debate on the future of nuclear energy or the reopening of the Rokkasho-mura reprocessing plant is not mixed up with the need for international cooperation. Instructing his officials to incorporate all the non-proliferation safeguards that India has already accepted in its agreements with the US and Australia will help Abe clinch the issue and turn what is likely to be a successful visit into a defining moment for Indo-Japanese relations.
What both leaders, especially Abe, need to realise is that the Indo-Japanese relationship will prosper and scale new heights only if it has intrinsic value. Treating the relationship with India as a derivative product of, say, Japan’s relations with China, may give a temporary boost to bilateral ties but that boost will not endure. Modi might represent a party that has traditionally favoured a more muscular Indian approach towards China and that is not averse to the neo-containment talk currently fashionable in Tokyo, but the last thing India wants is to be forced to choose between Japan and China.
US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel was wise enough to acknowledge this basic element in Indian strategic thinking when he said in New Delhi on August 9 that India “need not choose between a closer partnership with America and improved ties with China.” But the closer security cooperation between India, Japan and the US he advocated, if implemented crudely, could well push India into what Hagel himself called the “trap of rivalry” with China.
Modi has ambitious plans for the Indian economy and these require excellent relations with both Japan and China. As they deal with the uncertainties of a rising China, Tokyo and New Delhi will no doubt draw comfort from each other. But they mustn’t exaggerate the degree to which their embrace makes them more secure either.