Nuclear embrace

India and Japan sign a civilian nuclear cooperation agreement, strengthening the Washington-New Delhi-Tokyo axis to counter China’s growing clout in world affairs.

Published : Nov 23, 2016 12:30 IST

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe at a press meet in Tokyo on November 11.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe at a press meet in Tokyo on November 11.

After years of protracted negotiations, India and Japan finally inked a civilian nuclear cooperation agreement on November 9, during the course of a state visit by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The deal will now allow Japan to supply India with nuclear fuel, equipment and technology for nuclear power production. India started negotiations with Japan soon after it signed a nuclear deal with the United States in 2006. Formal negotiations started six years ago. But they gained momentum only after the right-wing nationalist government led by Shinzo Abe came back to power.

Japanese public opinion continues to remain vehemently opposed to the spread of nuclear weapons. The memories of Hiroshima and Nagasaki have been indelibly etched on the Japanese psyche. Ever since returning to power, Shinzo Abe has focussed on reviving the Japanese economy and making his country a military power to be reckoned with in the region. Japan, an all-weather political ally of the U.S., is a key component of the Barack Obama administration’s “military pivot” to East Asia. After the National Democratic Alliance government came back to power, India has further tilted towards the U.S. and Japan in the ongoing moves to militarily encircle and try to stop the emergence of a “rising” China as a superpower.

The nuclear deal with Japan will further strengthen the Washington-New Delhi-Tokyo axis. Shinzo Abe was also keen to expedite the nuclear deal with India because it would provide a lifeline for the floundering nuclear industry in Japan, which has been reeling from the twin effects of the Fukushima disaster and global recession. Very few countries in the world, for various reasons ranging from the economic to the ecological, are going in for nuclear power now. In Japan itself, plans for the construction of more than a dozen nuclear reactors were cancelled after the meltdown in the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear plant in 2011. Big Japanese conglomerates such as Hitachi and Toshiba were adversely affected by the slowdown in the business.

Among the few countries that are still keen to buy nuclear reactors, despite the high cost and the risks involved, are Asian ones like India, Pakistan and Vietnam. Vietnam is said to be on the verge of cancelling an order it had placed with Japan to construct a nuclear reactor. India, it seems, is the only country really left that is willing to spend big bucks on nuclear reactors; India plans to build 20 nuclear reactors within the next decade. India has already signed agreements with the U.S. and France for the construction of nuclear reactors, with the former expected to build 10 nuclear reactors in the coming years.

But none of the projects has got off the ground because of the unlimited liability law in case of nuclear accident that the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government had to adopt. Under the law, foreign nuclear vendors are liable to pay billions of dollars in compensation in case of nuclear accidents, like the one that happened in Fukushima. Russia and France, though they are opposed to the liability law, plan to go ahead with the construction of new nuclear reactors in India.

China and South Korea, meanwhile, have been bagging lucrative contracts to build nuclear reactors in a few countries. They have the necessary expertise and they do it at a much cheaper cost. The Japan-India nuclear deal is important for U.S. companies involved in the nuclear industry such as Westinghouse, which have won contracts to build six nuclear reactors in India. Westinghouse was purchased by Toshiba in 2006. The Japan-India nuclear deal was necessary for Westinghouse to start work on the construction of nuclear reactors in India.

Westinghouse has made little profit since its takeover by the Japanese firm. Toshiba had to incur huge financial losses after it acquired the U.S. company because of a paucity of orders to build nuclear reactors. Areva, the French company which has bagged a contract to build nuclear reactors in India, also sources components from Toshiba. Revenue from the nuclear industry has virtually dried up in the last decade. Now, with India announcing grandiose plans to source most of its energy needs from nuclear power, happy days could be here again for Japanese-owned companies such as Toshiba, Westinghouse and GE-Hitachi.

Opposition in Japan

The Shinzo Abe government went ahead and signed the nuclear deal with India despite opposition from important sections of Japanese civil society. It was, after all, the first nuclear deal Japan has signed with a non-NPT (Non-Proliferation Treaty) signatory. The deal was inked just a couple of days after India’s Defence Minister, Manohar Parrikar, said that India’s pledge of “no first use” of nuclear weapons was not a sacrosanct one. To clinch the deal, India had to sign a separate “Note on Views and Understanding” along with the nuclear agreement. In the Note, the Indian government had to reiterate the commitment made by the previous UPA government that India would adhere to its “no first use” nuclear policy.

Termination clause

Article 14 of the deal allows Japan to unilaterally suspend the deal if there is any change in India’s stated nuclear doctrine. In the nuclear agreements with the U.S., Russia and France, India had not given such commitments in writing. According to Indian officials, this was done keeping in mind the strong anti-nuclear lobby in the Japanese parliament. In reality, the termination clause in the agreement is only a cosmetic dressing as no company would like to jeopardise their massive investments and profits on the grounds of principles and ethics. Indian External Affairs Ministry officials now say that the “Note” is not “legally binding”.

Many newspapers in Japan published articles and editorials arguing against the signing of a nuclear deal with countries that have refused to sign the NPT and have a huge stockpile of nuclear weapons. Shinzo Abe had to assure the Japanese public that his government had the right to revoke the agreement if India conducted another nuclear test. “The agreement is a legal framework to ensure that India acts responsibly for the peaceful use of nuclear energy. It will also lead us to having India participate practically in the international non-proliferation regime,” he said at a press conference he addressed with Narendra Modi by his side, after the signing of the deal. The tough posturing of the Shinzo Abe government is meant to mollify Japanese public opinion.

Many in Japan are in fact suspicious of their Prime Minister’s stance on global nuclear disarmament. Japan itself is under the U.S.’ nuclear umbrella. Donald Trump, the U.S. President-elect, had wondered aloud about Japan and South Korea being allowed to develop their own nuclear weapons to confront the so-called nuclear and missile threat from North Korea. If Trump actually goes ahead and withdraws the U.S. military from the region, a nuclear arms race could become a reality. Japan and South Korea have enough nuclear fissile material to weaponise at short notice. Shinzo Abe is anyway determined to rewrite Japan’s pacifist Constitution, which will once again allow the country to openly flex its already powerful military muscles.

India supported the Japanese position on the South China Sea dispute. In the joint statement issued after talks between the Indian Prime Minister and his Japanese counterpart in Tokyo, the two sides implicitly criticised China, harping on “the critical importance of the sea lanes of communications in the South China Sea for regional energy security and trade”. The two Prime Ministers called upon all states to “avoid unilateral actions that could lead to tensions in the region”. China insisted that there had never been a threat to the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea and that it was a bogey first brought up by the U.S. The Chinese have said that maritime disputes can easily be settled between the countries involved in the dispute without outside interference. Beijing’s point of view seems to be claiming more adherents in the region. The Philippines and Malaysia, which until recently were with the U.S. and Japan on the dispute, now seem to have changed their positions and have said that they prefer having a dialogue with China to resolve long-pending issues.

India, under Modi, however, has toughened its stance against China on a host of international issues despite both countries being part of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) grouping. Japan seems to be more cautious in its approach to China. Its Foreign Ministry spokesperson, speaking to the media during Modi’s visit, said that Japan-India cooperation was not targeted at a third country and specifically stated that China was an “important stakeholder” for both the countries.

China is, however, far from reassured as it watches the growing bonhomie between Japan and India. There is increasing military-to-military cooperation between the two countries. Japan has been included in the annual “Malabar” military exercises India holds with the U.S. The three countries also hold an annual trilateral dialogue. It is not known whether Japan’s failure to clinch a deal to sell its amphibious Shinmaywa US-2 aircraft to India was in anyway related to the China factor. It is well known that the Indian Navy was keen to acquire the planes and Japan had agreed to sell them at bargain basement prices. There are reports that the Japanese side, however, only offered to supply the unarmed version of the plane and was also reluctant to transfer the technology to India. India wanted the aircraft for both rescue and combat operations.

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