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Modi’s Trip to Tokyo: Takeaways for India-Japan Relations

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The Pulse

Modi’s Trip to Tokyo: Takeaways for India-Japan Relations

The India-Japan strategic partnership is enjoying a new synergy.

Modi’s Trip to Tokyo: Takeaways for India-Japan Relations
Credit: Flickr/ MEAphotogallery

After six years of consultation, India and Japan inked a civil nuclear agreement on the sidelines of their annual summit, this year held in Tokyo. India is the first non-signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to have signed such a deal with Japan. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Japanese counterpart, Shinzo Abe, welcomed the agreement as a historic step forward to achieve a clean energy partnership.

While the nuclear deal stole headlines, the bilateral annual summit also undertook a detailed assessment of the “Special Strategic and Global Partnership” as outlined in the “India and Japan Vision 2025,” released at last year’s summit. After discussion on a wide range of bilateral and regional issues, a substantive joint statement was issued on November 11, 2016. The joint statement put in perspective areas in which India and Japan could work closely, which the statement clearly indicated could encompass not only bilateral concerns but also Indo-Pacific regional issues. The joint statement clearly represents the tectonic shift in India-Japan relationship in four areas: nuclear cooperation, counterterrorism, coordination on regional issues, and defense industry cooperation.

India-Japan Civil Nuclear Cooperation

On November 11, India and Japan signed the “Agreement for Cooperation in the Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Energy” and a supplementary document, called “Note on Views and Understanding,” which is also legally binding, to ensure the implementation of the main deal. The “Note on Views and Understanding” describes a statement delivered in Vienna on September 5, 2008 by then-External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee on the Civil Nuclear Initiative. According to the Note, that speech will constitute the “essential basis for cooperation between the two states under the agreement.” In the 2008 speech, Mukherjee emphasized India’s commitment to a voluntary moratorium on nuclear testing, non-proliferation, and the global disarmament of nuclear weapons.

Henceforth, any violation of the September 5, 2008 statement could be viewed as a serious departure from the status quo. In that situation, Japan has reserved the right to suspend reprocessing of nuclear material at any facility with due consultation from both side, as described in Article 14(9) of the main text of the nuclear agreement. The preconditions laid down by Japan in the agreement has raised serious concern about India’s right to undertake future nuclear test or to amend its No First Use Policy.

Commenting on the termination clause, Indian Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar said that the “nuclear agreement has a termination and cessation clause – similar to the Indo-U.S. agreement.” To allay Japanese concern, the deal has given much emphasis on nuclear safety and security, Jaishankar explained.  Professor Takako Hirose, an  expert in South Asia nuclear issues, opines that the “termination clause” is more symbolic than practical, meant to show that Japan has not compromised its position on disarmament by signing a nuclear agreement with a country that is not a signatory to the NPT.

But Indian media and strategic circles remain apprehensive about the “Note on Views and Understanding,” which gives Japan the right to terminate its cooperation with India if the latter opts to test nuclear weapons in the future. Any deviation from the present status quo would severely undermine Indo-Japan civil nuclear cooperation.

India and Japan Statement on Cross-Border Terrorism

After the attack on a military base in Uri, India’s government has stepped up both military action and diplomatic initiatives against Pakistan. As part of India’s proactive diplomacy toward cross-border terrorism, India has taken several steps in international fora to pressure Pakistan to suspend covert activity in Jammu and Kashmir. Japan, known for maintaining a balanced view on the India-Pakistan conflict, for the first time has not only condemned terrorist activity in the 2016 joint statement but also urged Pakistan to take punitive actions against terrorist groups operating from its territory. This was a major diplomatic triumph for India in isolating Pakistan internationally.

At the same time, it is important to note that in the post-9/11 period Japan has maintained a strong relationship with Pakistan to support the U.S. coalition effort in Afghanistan. Japan also views Pakistan as a forefront in the fight against terrorism and continues aid and support to stabilize Pakistan’s political and economic situation. Now, by condemning Pakistan for aiding terrorist activity against India, Japan has taken a proactive step forward to support New Delhi’s counterterrorism initiative globally.

Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy

The regional security environment remains a prominent factor in the India-Japan relationship. The joint statement highlights the importance of “strengthening rules-based international order in the Indo-Pacific region” and building a partnership to counter Chinese influence in the region. Both the prime ministers have called for a peaceful solution to the territorial disputes in the South China Sea, and last week they reaffirmed their “commitment to respecting freedom of navigation and over flight, and unimpeded lawful commerce, based on the principles of international law.”

Moreover, new joint initiatives to develop Chabahar port in Iran would significantly improve India and Japan’s connectivity with Afghanistan and Central Asia. Japan has recently stepped up its engagement with Iran and is seeking to expand its footprints in the region. This could complement India’s effort to counter China-Pakistan trade activity in the region. At the same time, Chabahar port, located close to major oil-shipping routes, will allow Japan to monitor Japanese vessels’ movement in the region.

According to news reports, Japan is also seeking to extend its financial support via the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) to upgrade naval air bases and construct new signals intelligence stations along the Andaman and Nicobar Island chain, with the goal of monitoring Chinese submarine activity in the region. The network will eventually be integrated into the existing U.S.-Japan “Fish Hook” Sound Surveillance System (SOSUS) network. This would boost India’s trilateral cooperation with the United States and Japan in countering China’s assertive maritime policy in the Indo-Pacific region. Further, the leaders also agreed to strengthen the maritime cooperation between the three navies to protect the maritime commons.

India-Japan Defense Industrial Cooperation

Recently, defense industry cooperation has been gaining significant importance in the India-Japan relationship. At the summit, Modi reiterated the importance of cooperation between defense industries from the two countries. He also underlined the importance of co-development and co-production in  niche technological areas. Under Modi’s so-called Make in India policy, Japan is also eagerly looking forward to positive engagement with India in the defense and aerospace sectors. Keeping in view the negotiations on a possible US2i sale to India, Japan’s Overseas Human Resources and Industry Development Association (HIDA) is inviting Indian aircraft industry personnel to training programs in Japan to deepen aerospace cooperation (full disclosure: In 2014, the author coordinated with HIDA in identifying Indian aircraft industry candidates for the training program in Japan). However, the long pending US2i amphibious aircraft deal has yet to get approval from India. According to India’s External Affair Ministry sources, the deal is still in the negotiation phase and “India is still evaluating the need” for such aircraft. Japan is hopeful that the deal will bring a new round of cooperation in the defense industry and specifically the aerospace sector.

In conclusion, the 2016 annual summit clearly envisages a greater role for India and Japan in the Indo-Pacific region. The two countries share a similar vision for building peace and stability in the region and are  ready to expand the scope of strategic and defense cooperation. This year’s bilateral talks clearly represent a more proactive approach to emerging security challenges in the Indo-Pacific region.

Prakash Panneerselvam is a Post-Doctoral Associate at the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru.