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India-Japan Strategic Partnership

Dr Rajiv Nayan is Senior Research Associate at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • June 11, 2013

    As expected, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s recent visit to Japan culminated in an India-Japan joint statement on May 29, 2013. Though several occasions during the visit provided opportunities to the Indian and Japanese premiers to make several policy statements on past achievements and the great untapped potential of the India-Japan bilateral relationship, yet, as is current practice, it is worth evaluating success of the visit on the merit of the joint statement.

    In recent years, several joint statements such as the January 18, 2005 India-United States joint statement, which pronounced the India-US civil nuclear energy initiative, have highlighted a new bilateral summit diplomacy in nuclear and high technology. The same kind of statement was issued when US President Barack Obama visited India in November 2010. That joint statement, among other issues discussed, endorsed India’s membership to the four multilateral export controls regimes—the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), the Australia Group, and the Wassenaar Arrangement.

    Has the May 29, 2013 joint statement made any significant announcements on the India-Japan strategic relationship? Observers interested in the relationship had great hope in Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe given his strategic vision and a significant place for India in it. The joint statement, of course, underlined a number of ongoing issues which are the backbone of the strategic/security relationship. However, most of the issues fall in the economic realm.

    The real expectation from the visit was regarding important decisions on defence issues and nuclear and advanced technology commerce. Maritime security cooperation seems to have continued with extra measures like a Joint Working Group (JWG) to look at “modality for the cooperation on the US-2 amphibian aircraft”. Terrorism, another old issue for security cooperation, has been re-iterated through the JWG on Counter-terrorism and the two countries cooperation in multilateral fora, and importantly the need to “finalize and adopt the Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism in the United Nations”. However, like its ally (the US), Japan is also directionless on the current source of international terrorism, namely, Pakistan.

    The India-Japan civil nuclear energy agreement once again received a positive mention in the statement, though in concrete terms the joint statement did not move forward much. The statement recorded: “The two Prime Ministers reaffirmed the importance of civil nuclear cooperation between the two countries, while recognizing that nuclear safety is a priority for both Governments. In this context, they directed their officials to accelerate the negotiations of an Agreement for Cooperation in the Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Energy towards an early conclusion.”

    In fact, this positive language for India-Japan civil nuclear energy cooperation has been finding expression in all the joint statements issued in recent years, especially after the move for India-specific NSG exemptions. If we consider the situation existing before the 2005 India-US Civil Nuclear Energy Initiative, it may be considered a great achievement. However, if we consider the pace at which the civil nuclear energy negotiation between the two countries is moving, it is quite disappointing. A detailed and successful agreement between the two countries is extremely necessary.

    Certain forces, however, are hindering the successful agreement. First, after the Fukushima incident in 2011, anti-nuclear groups in Japan have been demanding a complete ban on use and export of nuclear technology and goods. The mention of nuclear safety as a priority in this statement may have been added to address growing concerns for nuclear safety in both the countries. In Japan, as elsewhere in the world, anti-nuclear forces protest the transfer of nuclear technology. They argue that it is unethical for Japan to transfer a technology which it is not going to use itself. In reality, Japan is finding it difficult to shut down all the nuclear power plants and do away with its reliance on nuclear energy for electricity and other industrial uses. Therefore, nuclear safety is not an issue on which India and Japan have any serious problem. The Fukushima complex used the Boiling Water Reactor. India too has boiling water reactors, but had modified their design before the Fukushima incident occurred. Japan and India may further share their experience in nuclear safety, though both countries have been interacting with each other in several international fora.

    Second, existing political combinations and permutations in the Japanese Parliament may be hindering Prime Minister Abe to give an extra push to conclude the agreement. Optimists, however, are confident that after the elections to the Upper House of the Japanese Diet, scheduled to take place by the end of 2013, Prime Minister Abe’s position shall be strengthened internally which will enable him to take a bold decision.

    Third, there are anti-India, non-proliferation elements operating in the Japanese Government. Very little support, fortunately, exists for this anti-India bureaucracy outside of the group. Despite this fact, Prime Minister Abe may have to tame this existing anti-India non-proliferation group in his government if he wants to do any meaningful business with India.

    Regarding advanced technology commerce, the joint statement has not made significant movement forward. Although over the past few years, Japan has liberalized its rigid export controls provisions for India and removed a number of Indian organizations from the end-user list, India has not yet been aligned in Japanese export controls. Talks have been on for several years. The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) in Japan is seriously negotiating for better export controls to undertake high technology commerce with India, but some non-issues appear overshadowing the real issues.

    However, Japan’s endorsement of India’s candidature for the four major multilateral export controls regimes seems to be the principal achievement of the joint statement. The pro-India elements in the Japanese Government seem to have triumphed over the anti-India non-proliferation group, which was resisting the Japanese support for India’s membership. Even the support for the India-specific exemptions in the guidelines of the NSG came quite late from Japan. And the general understanding is that the US had to intervene in order to get these through. Under Abe’s leadership, Japan needs to play a pro-active role to persuade some of the European members of these groups to support India’s case. Of course, India will have to manage China.

    China’s response to the joint statement following the Indian Prime Minister visit is a wake up call for the Japanese leadership. Abe knows the relevance and the potential of the India-Japan strategic partnership. His political colleagues and the bureaucracy need to understand it further. A robust India-Japan relationship is a win-win situation for both countries in a global strategic environment increasingly shaped by Asian powers.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.