Japan may not be such an easy pushover on nuclear deal with India

Author: David Brewster, ANU

In recent weeks we have seen the ‘bromance’ between India and Japan reach new heights. Earlier this month, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Tokyo amid media hype of a special relationship, and even a de facto alliance, between the two countries. There is talk of a special ‘personal chemistry’ between Modi and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and much was made of the claim that Modi was one of only three people that Abe follows on Twitter.

We are told, among other things, that India will receive 3.5 trillion yen (US$28 billion) in Japanese investment, that Japan will build bullet trains for India and that India will become a major new supplier of rare earth minerals to Japan. There have been important developments on the security front, including plans for expanded security dialogues and the prospect of more naval exercises. We were also told that there were imminent deals on the sale of US-2 amphibious aircraft to the Indian Navy and on the supply of Japanese nuclear technology to India.

The subtext of this friendship is of course China, as the two major regional powers find common cause against their huge neighbour. To some in New Delhi, these developments represent steps towards a long-held dream of a multipolar world in which India and Japan can work together as Asian partners — perhaps one day without the ‘third wheel’ of the United States.

Well, not so fast — deals on the US-2 aircraft and the supply of nuclear technology face significant problems which may take quite some time to work through. We need to be careful about the rhetoric, particularly from some in the Indian media, far exceeding the reality. While there are good reasons to expect a closer strategic alignment between India and Japan in the long term, there are also many political, institutional and cultural obstacles that will make that road a long and rocky one. Building the relationship will likely take considerable time and patience on both sides.

Through much of the 20th century, the relationship between India and Japan was cordial, if somewhat distant. Since the end of the Cold War, one of the biggest areas of disagreement has been in the nuclear realm. Japan has long been a leading supporter of international norms against the proliferation of nuclear weapons, including the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). India is one of the few major countries in the world that is not a party to either the NPT or the CTBT, arguing that the international non-proliferation system ‘discriminates’ against it. In 1998, Japan and Australia led international condemnation of India’s nuclear weapons tests. Since that time, Tokyo’s stance has been that India should sign the NPT (which it practically cannot, because it would mean giving up its nuclear weapons), or at least become a party to the CTBT, so there will be no more nuclear tests.

A nuclear agreement has been under negotiation between the two countries since 2010, but without real progress. The deal is important for India for both practical and symbolic reasons. India has an ambitious program to increase its nuclear generation capacity, including becoming one of the biggest users of nuclear power in the world. Japanese companies (Toshiba, Hitachi and Mitsubishi) rank among the biggest suppliers of nuclear technology, with Toshiba (including Westinghouse, which it controls) representing in the order of 30 per cent of total worldwide nuclear reactor capacity. Japan is at the forefront of several nuclear technologies, including mixed oxide fuels, light water reactors, advanced boiled water reactors and fast breeder reactors. French and US nuclear suppliers also rely on Japanese companies for key technologies. Lack of access to these technologies would significantly restrict India’s options and could prevent it from achieving its nuclear plans. Just as important is the symbolism of a nuclear deal — it would effectively signal Japan’s acceptance of India as a great power and a legitimate nuclear weapons state.

For their part, the big Japanese nuclear companies are very keen to supply technology to India. Since the Fukushima disaster in 2011, the Japanese nuclear industry has effectively been in a state of suspended animation and India represents one of the few large growth markets in the world for nuclear power.

But any deal must contend with extremely strong opposition in Japan to nuclear weapons and growing opposition to nuclear power. This is felt right across the political spectrum. Many argue that a deal with India would punch a big hole in the international nuclear non-proliferation system, making it harder to hold the line against other less responsible countries. There is also opposition — especially since Fukushima — to assisting in the development of the Indian nuclear power industry.

The depth of this sentiment is not well understood or even acknowledged in New Delhi, where India’s right to be recognised as a legitimate nuclear weapons state is taken as a matter of course. For many in New Delhi, a preoccupation with establishing India’s nuclear legitimacy blinds them to the deep concerns in Japan about nuclear proliferation.

When Modi visited Tokyo earlier this month, he allowed public rhetoric and expectations about the growing relationship to exceed reality. He apparently assumed that Japan’s nuclear concerns could be fudged.  It appears that Japan will likely support India’s bid to join the international Nuclear Suppliers Group as the only non-NPT country. But Modi is rumoured to have come away angry and disappointed that Tokyo would not agree to India’s demands for a nuclear deal with Japan without New Delhi giving a clear commitment to a ban on nuclear tests as well as placing a cap on liability for accidents. New Delhi no doubt hopes that these issues can be resolved before the next summit meeting between the two. But India may find that, at least on nuclear issues, Japan is not such an easy pushover.

David Brewster is a Visiting Fellow at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, Australian National University.