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Energy and Politics: Japan and India Discussing a Civilian Nuclear Energy Program

Japan, long critical of Indian nuclear policy, is discussing a civilian nuclear energy cooperation agreement that could be signed by the end of the year when the Indian prime minister visits Tokyo.

This is a significant move for Japan, and 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 the two countries’ relations, with Japan reacting strongly to the nuclearization of the sub-continent. Tokyo suspended economic assistance for three years and all political exchanges between the two nations on hold.

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 the 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 described the tests as constituting a major threat to human security.

This strong reaction from Japan was in many ways understandable given that the Japanese 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 (NPT), in many ways, remains predicated upon its reliance on American nuclear deterrence.

The US-India civilian nuclear energy cooperation pact concluded in 2008 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, differences remain. Japan continues to insist that India sign the NPT and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), whereas India has no intention of doing, accusing the treaty of being discriminatory.

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

The Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) approved the US-India nuclear pact in 2008 in which Japan went with the consensus that India’s nuclear record warranted 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, as domestic sentiment in Japan remains strongly anti-nuclear.

The issue of civil nuclear cooperation was also raised when then-Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama visited India last year. Though Hatoyama was sympathetic to the Indian argument about the desirability of such a deal, he had stressed that India would have to provide assurances there would be no more nuclear tests.

But business is business.

Since securing the NSG approval, India has signed civilian nuclear cooperation agreements with states as diverse as the UK, France, Russia, Kazakhstan, Namibia, Angola and most recently, Canada.

Japan would like to be a part of this larger trend. Given the involvement of Japanese firms in the US and French nuclear industries, an Indo-Japanese pact is essential if US and French civilian nuclear cooperation with India is to be realized. Japanese approval is needed if GE-Hitachi and Toshiba-Westinghouse are to sell nuclear reactors to India.

Given the benefits the Japanese nuclear industry will reap from such a deal, it should come as no surprise that the Japanese Atomic Energy Agency and Ministry of Economics, Trade and Industry (METI) have pulled out all stops in support of the deal.

Though the commercial dimension of the deal is certainly significant, so is the political symbolism: An India-Japan civil nuclear pact would signal that Tokyo is ready to build a partnership with New Delhi to balance out China and Pakistan, the former which has recently rewarded the latter with civilian nuclear reactors.

By. Harsh V Pant




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