Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Nov 18, 2016
In the aftermath of PM Modi's visit to Japan, the single most important takeaway is the landmark agreement on civil nuclear cooperation.
India-Japan civil nuclear agreement: Differing perceptions

India-Japan partnership is regarded as a significant element contributing to the peace and stability of the Indo-Pacific region. The successful visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Tokyo for attending the annual bilateral summit on 11-12 November has become one more significant landmark in the bilateral relations. The importance of the summit should be seen in the persistent efforts made by both countries to broaden and diversify their partnership. The joint statement issued by both leaders testifies to it. Today the Indo-Japanese engagements are not just focused only on economic issues, but they include a wide range of interests including regional security, maritime issues, counter terrorism, energy security, UN reforms, climate change, etc.

For India, the single most important takeaway from the summit is the landmark agreement on civil nuclear cooperation which had eluded a solution for well over six years. For a vast country with ambitious development targets, India is in a dire need to augment its energy resources. India's present level of electricity production cannot cope with the rapidly growing demands of the economy. In addition, India is the third largest importer of crude oil and the third largest emitter of carbon dioxide. Since nuclear energy would be relatively cheap and clean, India has to go all out to harness it. It is the only realistic option for ensuring a steady supply of energy to manage the skyrocketing demands for electricity. At present India's nuclear power accounts for only three percent of its total electricity output, but it wants to increase its share to about twenty five percent in the next twenty years. In order to realise that goal, India has plans to build about eighty new nuclear reactors in the coming decades. If India could count on Japan's advanced cutting edge reactor technologies, it could accelerate India's progress in the nuclear power generation and take advantage of the convergent mutual interests with Japan. Japan itself is in the process of boosting the export of its nuclear technologies for peaceful uses. It has already signed and is in the process of signing many civil nuclear agreements with countries like Brazil, South Africa, Saudi Arabia, Mexico and Vietnam. But what has delayed the cooperation agreement with India is the fact Japan has not shared its nuclear technologies with any country that is not a signatory of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT). However, this is not to overlook two exceptions. First, Tokyo entered into an agreement with France in 1972. Second, a similar accord was signed with China in 1982. Though both France and China were not signatories to the NPT at that time, they were recognised as nuclear powers under the NPT which they signed in 1992.

Though India has unmistakably demonstrated its non-proliferation credentials, the prospects of its joining the NPT are almost nil. But it has signed nuclear cooperation agreements with eleven countries including Russia, the US, Australia, South Korea and Canada.

Though both India and Japan are strongly committed to nuclear disarmament, their approaches to issues like the NPT and CTBT have differed. Tokyo reacted sharply to India’s first nuclear test in 1974 and suspended its ODA. In 1998, following India’s nuclear tests, Japan launched a scathing criticism of New Delhi's action and took stringent economic measures including the suspension of its ODA. But, after 2001 Tokyo's attitude towards India’s nuclear policy tended to gradually change, perhaps due to its own altered perception of the strategic situation in the Asia Pacific, including China's emergence as an economic and military power and North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. In 2008, when India was negotiating its nuclear agreement with the US, Japan showed a positive attitude and supported it at the NSG. Japan saw a convergence of its own strategic interests in supporting India as an emerging power. From 2010, bilateral negotiations for a civil nuclear agreement were started , but soon faced a major obstacle due to the Fukushima disaster. After many hurdles, both Modi and Abe took the negotiations forward and succeeded in signing the agreement now.

Public opinion in Japan is sharply divided on the nuclear cooperation agreement — and since it has to be ratified by the Japanese Diet — the pros and cons of the accord will be heatedly debated. Considering the massive majority strength that the ruling LDP-Komeito coalition enjoys in both houses, ratification will not pose any problem. Any issue connected with Japan's nuclear policy has always been a sensitive one which draws the concerns of large segments of the Japanese society. Influential anti-nuclear groups organise big demonstrations to register their concerns and opposition. This phenomenon has become far more pronounced since the 2011 Fukushima disaster. In this connection, one should note how the Fukushima crisis has completely changed the nuclear energy scenario of Japan. At present, only one or two reactors have resumed their operations and it is a Herculean task to reactivate the rest of about fifty reactors which are lying idle. Equally important is the gigantic task of decommissioning the Fukushima reactors that would cost trillions of Japanese Yen. The question of rehabilitating thousands of homeless people in and around Fukushima is also mind-boggling .

Fukushima Source: Greensefa/CC BY 2.0 The Japanese media examines the Indo-Japanese accord in the light of all these hardships and the left-oriented dailies such as the Asahi and the Mainichi have carried on a relentless campaign against the revival of nuclear power. It is also worth noting that former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi has stated recently that if the Japanese opposition political parties could come together and project the nuclear issue as the only serious electoral issue, they would be able to capture power. Such a statement coming from a former LDP prime minister certainly shows the intensity of the appeal that nuclear issue could make.

Both Asahi and Mainichi argue that it was a serious "flaw" on the part of the Japanese government not to include a clear "nullification clause" within the main text of the present agreement itself. Mainichi suspects that India, by arguing that the additional note it has signed with Japan is not binding, does not want to give up its right to conduct tests because Pakistan possesses nuclear weapons and is not a member of the NPT. Many in Japan, including the Asahi argue that the agreement has undermined Japan's credibility as a leading champion of nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament goals. Asahi complains that under the deal Japan has agreed to provide nuclear technology to India without proper and sufficient guarantees that it will not conduct nuclear tests.

Article 14 of the agreement has spelt out details regarding the procedures for terminating the agreement and the follow-up measures. But it says precious little on the right of Japan to nullify the agreement in the event of India conducting a test. In a separate note, both countries have acknowledged the 5 September 2008 statement made by Pranab Mukherjee, then India’s External Affairs Minister at IAEA, Vienna, as the basis for cooperation. In that speech, Mukherjee underlined India's commitment to a voluntary, unilateral moratorium on nuclear testing.

In the additional note, Japan has taken the position that an Indian action in violation of the 5 September 2008 statement would constitute a departure and call for Japan's suspension of the reprocessing of nuclear material subject to the Agreement in accordance with Article 14. But India perceives that the terms of the note are not binding. It is reported widely that India considers the additional note as recording the views and special sensibilities of Japan and that India has not made any more “additional commitments” than what it has stated in similar agreements with the US and other countries. To what extent this difference in perceptions will be exploited by the opposition political parties as well as the anti-nuclear groups will be carefully watched by Abe and his colleagues before they choose the time for the ratification of the Japanese Diet.

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K. V. Kesavan

K. V. Kesavan

K.V. Kesavan (1938 2021) was Visiting Distinguished Fellow at ORF. He was one of the leading Indian scholars in the field of Japanese studies. Professor ...

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