The Japan-India strategic equation is not working

Author: Sourabh Gupta, Samuels International

On 26 January, Shinzo Abe became the first Japanese prime minister to grace India’s annual Republic Day parade as its chief guest.

If New Delhi’s motive in according Abe the high honour was to elevate the profile of this year’s summit meeting and nudge him to sign on the dotted line of the proposed Japan-India civil nuclear cooperation accord, the outcome was far from satisfactory.

Two weeks prior to his arrival, Abe dispatched Natsuo Yamaguchi, the head of his pacifist-leaning coalition partner the New Komeito Party, to New Delhi to reiterate Tokyo’s limited window of compromise. The civil nuclear cooperation-related language in the Joint Statement reflects this obvious discrepancy in viewpoints. More broadly, until Japan’s ruling coalition — and its broader society at large — arrives at a durable consensus on the role of nuclear energy in the post-Fukushima age, the desirability of proceeding with nuclear technology trade with India, a non-signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, will continue to elude.

If the motive behind Abe’s decision to pencil-in the India visit, in spite of a brutal January travel calendar, was to ever-so-slightly bend New Delhi’s diplomatic formulations on China, it was equally unsuccessful. The oblique references in the Joint Statement are anodyne at best. Despite attempts allegedly to force New Delhi’s hand into using anti-China language in the Joint Statement, Tokyo’s effort was as unsuccessful as its full-court press on ASEAN last December at the Japan-ASEAN special summit meeting. Both, the Indian and ASEAN statements make no reference to China, and on the ADIZ issue are almost identical to the point of being formulaic.

More pointedly, with Abe on the review deck at the Republic Day parade, the Singh government made a deliberate point to withdraw its recently-tested intermediate — and Chinese eastern seaboard — range, nuclear-capable ballistic missile from the display, so as to nip any mixed messages that might emerge. Abe did leave though with the small consolation prize of a revived ‘Malabar’ series trilateral (US-Japan-India) naval exercise that New Delhi has hitherto conducted lately with Washington only — but that too on condition that the exercise is conducted away from the Indian Ocean region’s sea lines of communication.

To elevate ties to the next level, both Japan and India will need to take difficult decisions in three areas.

On civil nuclear energy cooperation, the two sides have been deadlocked on issues related to nuclear testing and the right to reprocess spent fuel. Tokyo insists on wording in the main text that would allow termination of nuclear technology transfers if New Delhi violates its self-declared moratorium on testing; New Delhi prefers such language to be absent or, at best, shunted aside to an annexure.

The US-India civil nuclear deal had creatively dealt with this conundrum by eliminating any references to testing but also making the overall agreement contingent to short-notice termination on the basis of any-and-all eventualities (including presumably detonation of a nuclear device). The Kazakhstan-India civil nuclear cooperation agreement, on the other hand, contains a robust ‘peaceful uses’ clause that explicitly proscribes New Delhi from using any transferred material for nuclear explosives or military purpose. Both these agreements could serve as a useful template.

On the right to enrich/reprocess spent fuel, New Delhi seeks blanket prior consent to reprocess under IAEA safeguards; Tokyo is currently balking at the demand. The recent Japan-Turkey nuclear energy pact, which affirmatively accommodates such fuel-cycle management in principle, while privately proscribing the export of any enrichment or fuel reprocessing technologies, could provide a creative basis going forward.

On China, Japan and India must hold a frank conversation on their differing approaches. For Tokyo, US-Japan-India strategic ties is a means to manage the rise of China; any threat from Beijing is diminished, not increased, with greater trilateral cooperation — though New Delhi does not necessarily share this perception. Beijing is a key pivot of New Delhi’s multi-aligned foreign policy strategy which seeks to deepen cooperation with all the major strategic poles in international politics. Trilateral relations with Tokyo and Washington that reach beyond stated purposes and create a China-encircling network of alliances, particularly in the Indian Ocean region, does not correspond with India’s national interest.

Over the past six decades, Japanese and Indian policies on China have rarely converged, even when their respective outlooks have overlapped. Tokyo and New Delhi should instead re-direct their energies at deepening preparedness in key areas of functional cooperation. Joint implementation of international peace cooperation activities, as listed in the Abe government’s new defence program guidelines, is one such area. Tokyo and New Delhi should sign a basic military information exchange agreement and share logistics across a range of UN-supported, non-traditional security missions.

Finally, Japan is in talks with India to sell a short-takeoff-and-landing US-2 amphibian aircraft designed for search-and-rescue missions. Although the plane is to be stripped of its sensitive communications gear to conform to Tokyo’s arms sales principles, it will constitute the first export of a finished military/dual-use product that is currently in the Japan Self-Defense Force’s inventory. Progress on jointly assembling the plane in India is bogged down in the sclerotic and risk-averse processes that habitually infect New Delhi’s defence acquisition undertakings. The US-2 transfer and assembly must not be allowed to go the way of the Japan-India rare earths fiasco, which was announced with great fanfare to poke Beijing in the eye two years ago, yet is consigned to the bureaucratic long grass today for want of attention and will. Japan, in the meantime, should consider making its weapons-export principles, currently under review, sufficiently extensible to enable transfers of exclusively defence-oriented equipment to non-Western, non-allied, strategic partners such as India.

Shinzo Abe and Manmohan Singh share a camaraderie that has few parallels among the current crop of major world leaders. If the modest outcomes of this and their previous summit meeting last May is the best they can summon, the portents for the bilateral relationship are not good. Tokyo and New Delhi have their work cut out for them.

Sourabh Gupta is Senior Research Associate at Samuels International Associates, Inc., Washington DC. An earlier version of this piece appeared here in The Japan News.