Long Overdue: India and Japan Are Ready for a Full-Fledged Civil Nuclear Deal
Image Credit: Flickr/ Narendra Modi

Long Overdue: India and Japan Are Ready for a Full-Fledged Civil Nuclear Deal


Closer cooperation between Japan and India on a range of issues is more and more plausible today than in the past. Japan-India civil nuclear cooperation, in particular, is a good example of an area with immense promise. At a bilateral summit in New Delhi last December, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi signed a memorandum of agreement on civil nuclear cooperation. And on August 14, 2016, Japan’s Yomiuri reported that both prime ministers will conclude a full-fledged nuclear cooperation agreement in November 2016.

Before the two sides can conclude a nuclear cooperation pact, they must resolve their differences over key issues, such as Japanese companies’ liability for nuclear accidents, the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel (important because the plutonium produced through reprocessing of nuclear fuel can be used in nuclear weapons), and the consequences of any future testing of nuclear weapons by India. Despite these thorny issues, it is likely that this agreement will be one of the most important strategic developments for the entire Indo-Pacific balance.

From an economic standpoint, an agreement on the transfer of civil nuclear technology between Japan and India is vital to India’s continued economic growth. India’s economy began to develop rapidly not long after its government overhauled and liberalized its economy in the early 1990s. But energy is the booming Indian economy’s Achilles’ heel. In 2013, India overtook Japan as the world’s third-largest importer of crude oil. Given the current state of technology, nuclear power is the only realistic means of ensuring a steady supply of energy to meet the nation’s burgeoning demand for electric power without producing large-scale carbon emissions.

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With this in mind, New Delhi has already concluded a civil nuclear cooperation agreement with a number of countries. U.S. and French companies are eager to launch nuclear power projects in India, but they cannot proceed without large forged components from Japan, some of which claim 80 percent of the global market. And Japan cannot supply those components without a full-fledged nuclear agreement resolving the aforementioned issues. For this reason, a Japan-India nuclear deal is crucial.

This is not India’s problem alone. Just as China’s economic slowdown has affected the many countries around the world that trade with China, Japan and other nations in the Indo-Pacific region have a large stake in the Indian economy. A Japan-India nuclear agreement is an essential accomplishment to ensure the steady growth of India’s economy and, by extension, that of the entire region.

Some would argue that the Japanese government should not enter into a civil nuclear agreement with a country that has not committed to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). India never signed the treaty and maintains that it is arbitrary and unfair to acknowledge the right of China to possess nuclear weapons, but to deny the same right to India simply because it began testing its weapons a decade later. However, if one considers the matter carefully, it becomes clear that civil nuclear cooperation between Japan and India will have virtually no negative impact on the nonproliferation regime.

First of all, India has demonstrated a firm commitment to nonproliferation principle in practice. It clearly differs from countries like North Korea, Pakistan, and Iran, which have conducted shady dealings on the “nuclear black market.” If India continues to control its nuclear technology as carefully as it has for the past half-century, cooperation on the use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes should not undermine the NPT regime. This is why eleven countries have already signed civil nuclear cooperation agreements with India, namely, the United States, Russia, Britain, France, Australia, Canada, South Korea, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Argentina, and Namibia.

Secondly, even if the international community admits to India’s status as the “sixth nuclear great power” along with the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, and China, it is feasible that other great powers will not claim the “seventh” or “eighth” position in the near future. North Korea, Pakistan, and Iran have all disqualified themselves by their involvement in illicit trading of nuclear technology. Other countries that may have had nuclear weapons programs in the past (such as South Korea, Taiwan, Libya, Brazil, Argentina, and South Africa) have already shut them down. Although Israel is assumed to have nuclear weapons, it has a longstanding policy of refusing to publicly affirm the fact.

Regardless of these international trends, some in Japan nonetheless argue that the country, as the only nation to experience atomic bombings, must maintain exceptionally rigorous anti-proliferation standards. But the truth of the matter is that India’s nuclear policies are very similar to Japan’s. Both countries are committed to the “total elimination of nuclear weapons,” as they reaffirmed in last December’s joint statement. At the same time, both countries realistically acknowledge the need for nuclear deterrence in today’s world—India with its own nuclear weapons and Japan under the U.S. nuclear umbrella.

When China began testing nuclear weapons in 1964, both Japan and India were deeply alarmed. Japanese policymakers weighed the idea of developing an independent nuclear capability—possibly in cooperation with West Germany—but such a step was ultimately deemed unnecessary on the grounds that the U.S. “nuclear umbrella” afforded sufficient deterrence. What few people realize is that, as Stephen P. Cohen recounts in his 2001 book India: Emerging Power, India also appealed to the United States, USSR, United Kingdom, and France for a nuclear umbrella but they declined India’s request. Developing nuclear weapons itself was the only option left for India.

India has conducted nuclear tests on two occasions, in 1974 and 1998. Many in Japan were highly critical of India. But we need to keep in mind that Japan’s long-term commitment to abolishing nuclear weapons has not prevented it from taking advantage of the deterrent power of the U.S. nuclear umbrella. In this respect, Tokyo’s position differs very little from New Delhi’s. Japan’s commitment to nuclear nonproliferation and the NPT should not be regarded as a fundamental obstacle to the conclusion of a civil nuclear cooperation agreement with India.

Nonproliferation issues aside, a Japan-India civil nuclear cooperation agreement has important strategic implications. Japan and India share deep concerns over China’s growing presence and its expanding influence in the East China Sea, South China Sea, Indo-China border, and Indian Ocean. And, in this case, countries in the Indo-Pacific region are concerned regarding how much longer they can rely on U.S. power alone. Between 2000 and 2015, China added 42 new submarines to its fleet while the United States commissioned just 13. Japan and India need to cooperate to fill the gap left by a declining U.S. presence in the region.

In addition to military power, the export of infrastructure is one of the tools that China has used to bring these countries under its sway. The urgency of this is underlined by the fact that China is exporting nuclear plants to Pakistan. Hence, through the civil nuclear deal, Japan should cooperate with India to counterbalance against China’s activities to maintain the Asian power balance and dissuade China’s assertiveness.

Overall, given the economic, nonproliferation, and regional power balance issues examined above, it is clear that full-fledged Japan-India civil nuclear cooperation is fundamentally a development to be welcomed. The question remains regarding whether India is likely to conduct further testing of nuclear weapons and how such tests would impact the bilateral agreement.

India has said that it already has all the test data it needs to ensure the performance of its nuclear weapons. However, if it turns out that the data is insufficient, then further tests might be needed in order to maintain India’s nuclear deterrent capability.

If India were to conduct a nuclear test, nuclear cooperation between Japan and India—even for peaceful purposes—would become untenable, since there would be no assurance that resources provided by Japan had not been diverted to India’s nuclear weapons program. The depth of Japan’s concern over this can be gathered from the inclusion of the following item in the December 2015 Japan-India joint statement: “Prime Minister Abe stressed the importance of early entry into force of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) which should lead to nuclear disarmament.”

Unfortunately, the CTBT can only go into effect after all 44 states listed in Annex 2 of the treaty have ratified it and eight of those states have yet to do so. But the fact that Japan insisted on including this reference in the joint statement is an indication of its concern over the possibility of future testing. India needs to respect Japan’s worries on this point.

Provided that India appreciates the need to refrain from nuclear testing, civil nuclear cooperation could well become the basis for a long-term cooperative relationship with major benefits. Such a development would give true meaning and substance to the idea of a “special strategic and global partnership” that Tokyo and New Delhi claim to enjoy.

Dr. Satoru Nagao is a research fellow at the Tokyo Foundation and a lecturer in security and national strategy at Gakushuin University.

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