Features | Politics | South Asia

India, Japan Eye Nuclear Road Bump

Ties between India and Japan have warmed further since Japan’s Yoshihiko Noda took office. But civilian nuclear co-operation is proving a sticking point.

By K.V. Kesavan for

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda makes an important visit to India this week as part of the annual India-Japan summits institutionalized since 2005. Noda’s visit comes at a time when bilateral ties have not only stabilized, but also significantly expanded to include a wide range of economic and strategic issues. Indeed, despite the triple disaster that engulfed Japan in March, the two nations have appeared to stay focused on keeping the partnership on a steady trajectory.

First and foremost, both countries have signed a long-pending comprehensive economic partnership agreement (CEPA) that came into effect on August 1 following ratification by the Japanese Diet. The CEPA has prompted high expectations in both countries of a fresh boost to bilateral trade and investments. In addition, the participation of Indian contingents in the relief and reconstruction efforts in disaster affected regions of Japan following the earthquake and tsunami has undoubtedly made a favorable impact on the Japanese people and their leaders.

Such developments have been bolstered by an obvious political commitment to engagement on the part of the new Japanese premier, who shortly after coming to office had a chance to meet with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh when both were attending U.N. General Assembly sessions in September. The brief meeting enabled them to exchange views on several bilateral and global issues, and both underlined the importance of annual summit meetings for enhancing bilateral relations. They also stressed the importance of the safety of sea lanes in the Indian Ocean, and agreed to carry forward their discussions on security matters.

According to reports, Singh also raised the issue of India’s interest in signing a civilian nuclear cooperation agreement with Japan. Noda responded that Japan would move forward on the matter once it had managed to bring the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactor under control and had carried out a full-scale investigation and circulated the full information to other countries.

But the progress has gone beyond the two leaders. Indian External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna’s visit to Tokyo in the last week of October, as part of a regular security dialogue, is also worth noting. Evaluating the importance of such dialogue, Krishna’s Japanese counterpart, Koichiro Gemba, said that stability and development in India were in the best interests of Japan, as well as the Asian region as a whole. In particular, the two noted how their two countries could cooperate more in the sphere of maritime security, including counter piracy operations. In addition, they stressed the need for cooperation in areas such as the peaceful uses of nuclear energy, joint development of rare earth minerals and the evolution of the East Asian Summit into an effective forum in regional affairs.

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Krishna’s visit was soon followed by that of Indian Defense Minister A.K. Antony, who travelled to Tokyo on November 2 to 3 to participate in the Japan-India Defense Ministerial meeting. Both Antony and Yasuo Ichikawa exchanged in-depth views on regional and international security, as well as defense cooperation between the two countries. More recently, the first trilateral dialogue between India, Japan and the United States was held in Washington, on December 19. It provided an opportunity for the three countries to understand their respective perspectives on regional and global issues.

Finally, it’s worth noting that the Japanese government has always given the highest priority to India in its Official Developmental Policy. This has been further demonstrated by the fact that Tokyo has exempted India from drastic aid reductions following the March 11 disaster, which means that India will continue to be the biggest recipient of Japanese assistance, a position it has enjoyed since 2003.The latest aid package given to India includes projects connected with power, transportation, energy and afforestation.

All this provides a favorable backdrop for Noda’s visit this week, and the two leaders are expected to discuss a wide range of issues including regional security, energy cooperation, climate change, counter terrorism, maritime security and nuclear non-proliferation. But the trickiest issue is going to be talks on the prospects of civilian nuclear cooperation. The two countries have been involved in prolonged negotiations on this, with three rounds of talks having already been held. But following the March 11 Fukushima disaster, there’s inevitably been a slowing in progress.

While Japanese business interests have shown considerable eagerness for a quick agreement, the government has been somewhat slower, partly because of anti-nuclear domestic pressure. Noda’s predecessor was sometimes lukewarm about promoting nuclear energy at home, but Noda has shown increasing flexibility on the issue, and has received parliamentary approval for nuclear energy agreements with various other nations.

As the only country to have been devastated by atomic weapons, Japan has seemed insistent that India offer adequate non-proliferation assurances. The next few days should give the clearest indication yet whether India can provide these assurances on what is bound to be the hottest topic of discussion between the two leaders.

Prof.  K.V. Kesavan is a Distinguished Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation where this article was originally published.