Stunned disbelief

Print edition : May 23, 1998

THE multiple nuclear tests by India, among other things, were a social revelation. At the best and the worst of times, the oriental face is a mask of inscrutability. But not so on mushroom-cloudy Monday.

For almost a full day, Japan had nothing to say except gasp in disbelief. It was another day before Japan actually decided to act. Until then, in Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto's words, the tests were "extremely regrettable". Foreign Minister Keizo Obuchi did the routine act of summoning the Indian Ambassador, Siddharth Singh, and hinted that some punitive measures would be forthcoming. The Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary said that while Japan was getting in touch with other Group of Eight nations, "taking into account what Japan did against China, the government will consider means."

It was on May 13 that the Hashimoto Government announced that it was suspending new grants-in-aid, except humanitarian assistance and aid for grassroots projects. In the last fiscal year, Japan had given some yen 3.4 billions in such aid (about $ 25 millions). The yen loans, annually about yen 130 billions (about $ 1 billion) would not be affected. However, Japan also called off the annual India Development Fund meeting (IDF) it was scheduled to host towards the end of June.

Japan's Official Development Assistance (ODA) charter has guidelines regarding matters such as military spending by a recipient nation, but the overriding consideration in a review of aid programmes is the bilateral relationship. India is the third largest recipient of Japanese soft loans and indeed its ODA programme began with India in 1958.

The second set of tests came while the protest over the first round was running through fax machines in Tokyo. Hashimoto's reaction was to order a study of holding back yen loans but then he hinted there were other sanctions that could be applied. Ambassador Siddharth Singh was hauled in again late in the evening. Japan said that it took the situation seriously and protested strongly. It referred to "additional measures" but no punitive sanctions were added to the first list.

Some sections of the public seemed to react faster. The Mayor of Nagasaki, Icho Ito, had already flown down to Tokyo and delivered his protest personally at the Indian Embassy. Some half a dozen left-wing anti-nuclear groups camped outside the Embassy with one of them promising to remain there until the world had abolished every nuclear weapon. A few other Japanese towns saw mild demonstrations, but there was no violence.

The Upper House of Parliament had already adopted a resolution against India, as it did against China in 1995. Most political parties, with an eye on elections to the Upper House this summer, blasted India; after the second round of tests some called for going beyond the suspension of new grants-in-aid. Hashimoto obliged.

U.S. President Bill Clinton exhorted him to act because unless Japan joined in, sanctions would be meaningless. Further, the development was a heaven-sent diversion from the flak Japan was to receive at the G-8 summit for tardiness on measures for economic reform.

Hashimoto also saw the need not to open another contentious flank with the U.S. and engaged in further activism at the United Nations, at the Birmingham summit and on every public forum.

Influencing this course of action was the U.S. position that Japan's sanctions would be considered meaningful punishment by Pakistan, which was seeking a price for nuclear silence. Japan subsequently despatched an envoy to Islamabad. Then, there is of course the desire to appear to lead, as a step towards permanent membership of the U.N. Security Council.

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