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India and Japan scale new heights

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Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe shake hands during a joint press conference at Abe's official residence in Tokyo, Japan 11 November 2016 (Photo: Reuters/Franck Robichon)

In Brief

When Prime Minister Narendra Modi left India on 9 November 2016 for an annual summit with his Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe in Tokyo, two main items were on the agenda.


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First, an agreement on civil nuclear cooperation. Second, the finalisation of the sale of a dozen Japanese-made US2 amphibian aircraft to be used by the Indian navy.

Both have been sticking issues on the bilateral agenda for some time. The former because of Japan’s aversion to nuclear weapons and more recently even nuclear energy after the 2011 Fukushima disaster. The latter because of Japan’s hesitance to sell military hardware even after lifting its self-imposed ban on weapons exports.

While the US2 deal remained elusive even on this occasion, Modi was able to clinch a civil nuclear cooperation agreement — a most prized trophy for India. Such an agreement was almost finalised back in 2010 but in the fallout from Fukushima, the pendulum swung back and it took time for India to convince the Japanese side to put it back on the bilateral agenda.

When Abe visited New Delhi in December last year for the annual summit with Modi, the two prime ministers reached an in-principle agreement by signing a memorandum of understanding on the peaceful use of nuclear energy. In the past 12 months intensive negotiations have continued to fine-tune the terms and conditions for both parties to come to an agreement.

The agreement is undoubtedly a huge diplomatic coup for India. It was no easy task for India to persuade Japan to accept the exceptional circumstances of India not being party to either the nuclear non-proliferation treaty or the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Both diplomatic and political perseverance and regional strategic circumstances have paid dividends for India. It is also true that without Abe’s strong support, it is hard to believe that this outcome would have been possible so soon after Japan suffered a nuclear catastrophe.

For Delhi, an agreement with Japan was crucial for the further development of India’s nuclear energy sector. Even after concluding nuclear agreements with the United States and France, nuclear technology transfer proved difficult as French and US suppliers depend on Japanese companies for key nuclear technologies. Without the participation of companies like Mitsubishi, Toshiba and Hitachi, technology transfer to India was impossible. But after the treaty, French, US and Japanese nuclear suppliers will be able to do business with India, which plans to expand its nuclear energy capacity many-fold to tackle its electricity shortage and combat climate change.

India–Japan relations have prospered in recent years in wide-ranging fields covering huge infrastructure projects including a high speed railway based on Japanese bullet train technology, largely funded through Japanese official development assistance (ODA). Interactions at both official and non-official levels have expanded including defence links and military exercises. Japan has committed to partner with India for its ‘Make in India’, ‘Skill India’ and ‘Smart City’ projects as declared in the 2016 Japan–India Joint Statement signed by the two prime ministers. Never before have India and Japan been so attracted to each other. These attractions are economic as well as strategic.

India is a growing market and Japan’s technology and capital — including its ODA —  are highly valued. Japanese companies are now willing to invest in the Indian market, albeit still cautiously after some bad business deals in India. Economic links are sure to grow between the two countries.

Strategically, Japan and India also see each other as valuable partners since both face difficult relations with China through their maritime and territorial issues. Beijing’s continued support for North Korea and Pakistan also concern Japan and India respectively. Japan regards India as a great balancer against China and India finds in Japan a great supporter on its road to ‘great power’ status. For example, Tokyo has supported India’s membership in the Nuclear Suppliers Group while Beijing opposes it vehemently.

With Donald Trump due to move into the White House soon, India’s attraction to Japan as a defence and security partner is likely to only grow further, since Washington may require Tokyo to share greater responsibility in global affairs. Here Japan will find India a perfect match as a ‘special strategic and global partner’ in the Indo-Pacific region as both prime ministers declared in their 2015 joint statement.

Purnendra Jain is a Professor at the Department of Asian Studies, the University of Adelaide.

8 responses to “India and Japan scale new heights”

  1. The critically important question to be asked is this: who will bear financial responsibility in the case of an accident with Japanese-built nuclear reactors in India? Given the past catastrophes at both Bhopal, and especially Fukushima Daiichi, is the Indian government willing to exempt Japanese companies from all financial responsibility even if their product is demonstrably faulty? If so, the Indian government is, in my opinion, once again inviting yet another catastrophe on her people.

  2. How short sighted Modi is to move towards greater use of nuclear power for his country’s burgeoning energy needs. Events at Fuskshima have proven that it is nowhere near as ‘clean and safe’ as Abe and other proponents would like to believe. Even assuming India does not suffer huge earthquakes with a debilitating tsunamias struck Fukushima it will still have to store growing amounts of spent fuel safely for hundreds of years. Will it build the costly infrastructure to do this? Or will it store such material in pools of water at the power plants? Will it provide adequate security to prevent these materials from being used by terrorists to wreak havoc on the surrounding countryside? Terrorist attacks in Mumbai suggest that India is woefully lacking in this regard.

  3. India and Japan certainly share certain common values. Japan, as an island nation, has territorial disputes with all its neighbors, Russia, South Korea, China and Taiwan. India also has territorial disputes with all its neighbors. Below is a selected list of India’s land grabbing activities since its creation in 1947:

    1947 Annexation of Kashmir

    1949 Annexation of Manipur

    1949 Annexation of Tripura

    1951 Annexation of South Tibet:

    1954 Annexation of Nagaland

    1961 Annexation of Goa:

    1962 Annexation of Kalapani, Nepal:

    1962 Aggression against China:

    1971 Annexation of Turtuk, Pakistan:

    1972 Annexation of Tin Bigha, Bangladesh

    1975 Annexation of Sikkim (the whole country):

    1983 (Aborted) Attempted invasion of Mauritius

    1990 (Failed) Attempted annexation of Bhutan:

    2006 Annexation of Duars, Bhutan:

    2013 Annexation of Moreh, Myanmar

  4. Abe Shinzo seems to have become Narendra Modi’s main foreign friend.

    If one looks elsewhere, whatever relationship Modi was able to establish with Obama, who took the trouble to greet him once in Gujarati, Modi’s mother tongue, this will soon be in the past. So too belongs in the past his apparently cordial relationship with Tony Abbott, who escorted the Indian prime minister to a cricket match in Australia. Abbott thereby made a gesture that Abe and Obama would have found difficult to replicate.

    Given Abe’s background as the son of a foreign minister, Abe Shintaro, and the grandson of a prime minister, Kishi Nobusuke, one might have expected him to get on better with the Congress Party than with Modi. That party, after all, embodies a multi-generational dynasty of political leaders, whereas Modi’s father was a chai-wallah.

    Modi nonetheless is as proud of his father’s status as Abe no doubt is of his father’s and his grandfather’s respective careers. Perhaps Modi has brought this difference of ancestry up with his higher-born Japanese friend.

    What is most intriguing about the Indian-Japanese relationship at present is the question how much it is motivated by anxiety about China.

    Is it really true, though, that Abe considers India a ‘great balancer against China’? In many if not most respects, China is more powerful than India. Perhaps India and Japan combined could be defined as ‘great balancers’ against China. But India alone, no matter how successful Modi’s current demonetisation of Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes turns out to be, may have to wait a little longer before it deserves this encomium.

  5. India and Japan are strange bed-fellows for the following reasons:

    1 India signed the memorandum of obligations on 24 June 2016 at Tashkent, starting the formal process of joining the SCO as a full member. The SCO is a Eurasian political, economic, and military organisation, founded in 2001 in Shanghai by the leaders of the China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.

    2 Japan is an US ally and a fervent proponent of the TPP, which excludes India, Russia and China.

    3 Is Abe a reliable ‘special strategic and global partner’ of India if Japan wants to keep India out of the TPP?

    4 Is India a reliable member of the SCO if she also wants to be a ‘special strategic and global partner’ of Japan?

    5 Will India miss out on the lucrative OBOR opportunities if it is deemed not a reliable partner of the SCO?

    6 Then there is the inconvenience of Article 9 of Japan’s Constitution which could stand in the way if Japan wants to export the US2 amphibian aircraft for use by the Indian navy. See below:

    ARTICLE 9.

    (1) Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes.

    (2) In order to accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized.

    7 What exports from India would Japan need so as to enable India to fund the military purchases from Japan, without incurring an unsustainable trade deficit in the years ahead?

    8 Will Japan give India an agreement to take back the spent fuel from the reactors? I don’t think so as Japan has a very small land mass and has huge problems of its own to attend to at the failed nuclear reactors at Fukushima, which may take 40 years to decommission at an estimated cost of US$24 billion.

  6. Japan, the only country to witness the ruinous consequences of nuclear attack has to ensure a robust mechanism to prevent India from using the Japanese nuclear technology to enhance its nuclear weapons capabilities. Japan has long been a proponent of global nuclear zero; hence, in past it refrained from signing a nuclear pact with non-NPT signatory states. A nuclear agreement with India will affect Japan’s long standing against nuclear weapons development particularly when India is yet to sing nuclear nonproliferation regime.

    Another problem that Japan would face in case of successful nuclear deal is the reprocessing of spent fuel which can be converted into nuclear weapons. India to reprocess nuclear fuel burned in a plant built with Japanese components and materials. In such a scenario, Japan needs to ensure that it has robust check on its nuclear technology particularly in context of Indian intentions to expand its nuclear arsenal by taking advantage of this pact.

  7. If one looks at the history of nuclear power projects in India, practically each reactor took longer to build, cost more than projected and performed worse than had been envisaged when plans were made. The safety record of Indian nuclear power plants are far from reassuring and lack a comprehensive nuclear security culture. For example, in 1993, a fire broke out in the first unit of the Narora nuclear plant, which led to a partial fuel meltdown in the reactor core. Similarly, the Madras nuclear plant suffered a leak of 14 tons of highly radioactive heavy water in 1999. Most recently, in 2009, a radioactive leak was discovered in the Kaiga plant. At least 45 employees were exposed to harmful radiation.

  8. Deep in the rural plains of southern India, a mysterious government construction project is under way. Some allege the site will be a top secret “nuclear city”, designed to produce highly enriched uranium and allow the country to develop thermonuclear weapon now I wonder how Japan will keep a check on it whether to what purpose this deal will be utilized.

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