Heavy lifting ahead in the Japan-India nuclear deal

By Masako Toki | February 10, 2014

A nuclear cooperation agreement between Japan and India is looming. When prime ministers Shinzo Abe and Manmohan Singh met on January 25, it was as part of a broader effort to strengthen ties, but of all the issues they discussed, progress towards a nuclear deal was the most crucial to the two countries’ economies and strategic relationship. The potential agreement is also tremendously controversial.

Once the deal is finalized, Japanese companies will be able to export civilian nuclear technology and equipment to India. New Delhi’s motivation is clear: It is struggling to meet energy demand to sustain the country’s rapid economic growth. But Japan—the only country to have experienced nuclear devastation from both military attack, 70 years ago on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and a civilian reactor accident, three years ago in Fukushima—is reversing its own core principle of nonproliferation as it confronts a formidable and unprecedented dilemma: Should it adhere to the old rules, or, more realistically, try to revitalize its economy with much-needed revenue?

The Japanese government has cast its lot with the second choice. Through a contentious decision-making process, it seems Tokyo has concluded that since some kind of nuclear agreement with India at this point looks inevitable, anti-proliferation conditions must be included in the deal as the next-best option. This will be difficult to achieve, but if Japan can muster the political will to make it happen, the agreement could potentially help strengthen nonproliferation and disarmament worldwide.

US pressure on Japan. Since the 2011 disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, and despite severe and increasing criticism from domestic anti-nuclear voices, Japan’s ruling coalition, led by the Liberal Democratic Party, has concluded several bilateral nuclear agreements with so-called “emerging nuclear powers,” including Vietnam and Jordan. It will soon conclude one with Turkey, and negotiations with more countries are under way. Among all the agreements, though, the one with New Delhi is most significant, because India is the only negotiating partner that both possesses nuclear weapons and has never joined the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) or signed the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. It is the India deal that puts Japan most at risk of compromising its national identity as a champion of nonproliferation and disarmament.

An economy in the doldrums is, to be sure, one of the forces driving Japan to sell nuclear technology and equipment: India is planning to construct 18 more nuclear power reactors by 2020, which given that Japanese manufacturers are considered the strongest contenders for the business, could become a 9 trillion yen ($86.1 billion) market. However, finances are not the only factor. Such exports will also enhance the two countries’ geopolitical position as they confront their mutual rival China. And the most significant consideration causing Japan to overturn its longstanding principles has been United States pressure.

In 2005, Washington announced that it would pursue a civilian nuclear trade deal with India, reversing decades of its own nonproliferation policy. Soon afterwards the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), the multinational body that controls commerce in nuclear materials, began to consider granting India a waiver that would exempt it from the rule forbidding trade with countries not party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Japan had expressed no position on the possible exemption, but under intense pressure from the United States, had no option but to join the consensus. On September 6, 2008, the NSG approved the waiver. In return, New Delhi agreed to allow the International Atomic Energy Agency to inspect some of its civilian nuclear facilities (but not its military ones). The 45 members of the NSG were from then on allowed to conduct nuclear trade with India. To date, Russia, France, the United Kingdom, South Korea, Canada, Argentina, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, and Namibia have signed bilateral civilian nuclear cooperation agreements with New Delhi.  

In 2010, under the administration of Prime Minister Naoto Kan’s Democratic Party of Japan, Tokyo finally decided to pursue civilian nuclear cooperation with India, and the two countries met three times that year to negotiate a deal. After the Fukushima catastrophe in March 2011, though, they suspended negotiations for more than two years.

When Prime Minister Singh visited Japan in May 2013, the two countries decided to resume talks toward a nuclear agreement, aiming to conclude the deal within one year. They began negotiations in September 2013.

Does Tokyo have what it takes? The India exception has damaged the global nonproliferation regime. With enough political resolve, though, it may be possible to limit the damage. Negotiations between India and Japan to conclude a civilian nuclear deal should be treated as an opportunity to strengthen global nonproliferation and disarmament.

Japan is more qualified and has more leverage to make this happen than most countries are. Three of the four most advanced US and French nuclear reactor designs contain components that can be made only in Japan. Although the United States and France wish to sell these reactors to India, without a Japan-India nuclear agreement they wouldn’t be able to, making it hard for New Delhi to get its hands on the highest-quality equipment.

Meanwhile, Japan’s strong disarmament and nonproliferation policy, deeply grounded in the country’s historical experience, gives it the moral authority and credibility to stand firm against further compromise. This should make India consider concessions of its own.

Japan’s domestic politics will have a major influence on whether it actually does push for nonproliferation measures. The Liberal Democratic Party’s junior coalition partner, the New Komei Party, is a steadfast advocate for nuclear disarmament, with a platform that clearly states the goal of “strengthening the NPT regime toward a world free of nuclear weapons.” Party leader Natsuo Yamaguchi visited India in early January, prior to Abe’s visit later in the month. According to media reports, Yamaguchi was supportive of the nuclear deal, but highlighted that the Japanese people are very sensitive about such issues given the country’s experience, and that therefore it is important to obtain some degree of consent from them. It’s unclear how much positive impact the New Komei Party can have on this particular issue, but as an influential ruling coalition partner, it should continue to emphasize its nonproliferation stance loudly.

Necessary compromises. Both Japan and India will have to overcome difficult issues to conclude an agreement. Japan is taking the unprecedented step of going against its own historic stance on nuclear exports, but India must also compromise.

First, this deal should impose more stringent inspections than those required under India’s nuclear cooperation agreements with other countries. So far New Delhi has been reluctant to allow anything more intrusive than the inspections regime required by the United States-India nuclear deal.

Second, India and Japan are negotiating over whether to include a so-called termination clause in the agreement, which would allow the deal to be invalidated if either side conducted a nuclear weapons test. India should allow the clause to be included.

Finally, India should agree not to enrich or reprocess any fuels of Japanese origin.

It won’t be easy to get India on board with all of these provisions, especially with a Japanese Liberal Democratic Party so in favor of nuclear exports. But if Japan seriously aims to achieve a world free of nuclear weapons, it has to try to bring India along. If any country is positioned to turn a nuclear cooperation agreement into an opportunity to advance disarmament, it is Japan.

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