I’ve argued before in The Diplomat that the relationship between India and Japan is the one to watch in the Asia-Pacific in the 21st century. It makes good strategic sense. It brings together Asia’s largest and Asia’s richest democracies. It brings together two states who share a similarly strained relationship with China: economic dependence combined with strategic distrust.
For the most part, this hasn’t been a difficult argument to sell in Tokyo or New Delhi; most diplomats, experts, and strategic thinkers I’ve spoken to in the two cities seem to think that a serious strategic rapprochement has been long overdue. The tragedy of Cold War great power politics kept the two countries apart through the latter half of the 20th century, and on the economic front, things were timed poorly–Japan’s bubble burst just as India liberalized its economy. After a half-century of missed opportunities, the two states have really begun working together.
The problem that one always returns to in considering the possibility of a truly profound strategic partnership – or indeed, future alliance – between India and Japan is the nuclear issue. The two countries are almost polar opposites when it comes to nuclear weapons and nuclear energy – as matters of national policy, and even, as a matter of national political identities.
As readers of The Diplomat may be aware, nuclear weapons, and since the disaster at Fukushima, nuclear energy, are anathemas in contemporary Japanese political culture. The nation’s post-war foreign policy has taken on the cause of nuclear disarmament with some fervor. Critics are quick to point out Japan’s de facto acceptance of the U.S. nuclear umbrella via their security cooperation treaty, but Japan has never been soft-spoken on nuclear issues in its diplomacy. Japan has demonstrated some sensitivity to this accusation; it had previously (and famously) refused to sign onto a UN nuclear disarmament declaration that called for a complete ban on nuclear weapons, noting the incompatibility of that position with its U.S. alignment.
Indeed, the late-1990s proved transformative in Japan’s relationship with India. After the Pokhran-II nuclear tests in May 1998, Japan condemned India and participated in the international sanctions regime against it along with the United States and several other countries. The relationship entered its contemporary phase of growth and normalization beginning with Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori’s visit to India in 2000.
Nevertheless, Japan has always felt uncomfortable with India’s status as a non-signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the Comprehensive Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT), and the Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty (FMCT). In the early 2000s, prior to the official declaration of the Strategic Partnership in 2006, Japanese diplomats formally requested that India participate in negotiations for these treaties.
Towards the end of Junichiro Koizumi’s tenure as prime minister, and during Shinzo Abe’s first term, Japan realized the futility of reproaching the nuclear issue with India. This roughly corresponded with Bush administration’s de-hyphenation of U.S. South-Asia policy, and strategic embrace of New Delhi with the landmark 123 Agreement. India finally acquired a rather unique status among the global community of nuclear states when it received a waiver from the Nuclear Suppliers Group in 2008; it became the only non-NPT state to have achieved this and remains so to this day. The NSG waiver was largely a product of its excellent non-proliferation record in practice.
In the wake of India’s effective acceptance into the mainstream club of nuclear-weapon states, Japan began doing something that would have been unthinkable in the early 2000s or earlier: it began negotiating a Civil Nuclear Cooperation deal. As has been reported by The Diplomat, the process has been difficult for both sides, and negotiations have been slow. Japan’s brief switch from the LDP to the DPJ altered the political culture of the kantei, which made it difficult for the India-Japan political relationship to return to its previous high during the Abe-Fukuda-Aso era. The major disruption in the nuclear talks was the crisis at Fukushima Daiichi and the ensuing paralysis it inspired in Naoto Kan and Yoshihiko Noda.
Abe’s return to the helm boded quite well for India; he is known to be quite fond of India, and a strong proponent of improved strategic ties with the country. His strategic vision of the Asia-Pacific imagines India and Japan at the “Confluence of the Two Seas” bridging the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Indeed, negotiations on a nuclear deal resumed this year, but are still a long way from concluding.
The Civil Nuclear Cooperation agreement will ultimately work out for India and Japan. India has succeeded at signing similar agreements with other nations (to be fair, none as cautious on nuclear matters as Japan). The deeper problem is rectifying Japan’s strategic unease with India’s nuclear status and ambition.
Ultimately, I don’t see India ever incorporating the effect on its relationship with Japan in its strategic nuclear calculus: the perpetual focus will be balancing Pakistan and China. The solution must come from within Japan: Tokyo must accept India’s nuclear power and ambition. It will certainly be a tall order for Japanese politicians – even Abe the Indophile – to sell this to Japan’s public after how deeply nuclear tragedies have been embedded in its national identity.
Until Japan can accept India as a legitimate nuclear-weapon state, the bilateral relationship will have a fairly low strategic ceiling. The two states already cooperate on security matters, conducting maritime exercises together. They share a fairly robust free-trade agreement.
Much of this cooperation has been possible because, on most issues, Indian and Japanese policymakers act with strategic pragmatism. The nuclear issue, ultimately, is a clash of values. Despite the optimism present in both states with regards to the future of the India-Japan strategic partnership, there is a great need to reconcile this fundamental difference in values.