Aso, Singh pledge cooperation, regional security; EPA eludes

by Jun Hongo

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Prime Minister Taro Aso agreed Wednesday to cooperate on several issues, including regional safety, but fell short of signing an economic partnership agreement due to differences on trade.

While both sides remain eager to reach a deal on the free-trade agreement, the two could not see eye to eye on lowering barriers, including tariffs and customs procedures on certain imports.

“The agreement is still under negotiation,” Aso told reporters after the meeting.

Singh told the same news conference he looks forward to finalizing the accord, with the two sides expressing hope in a joint statement that negotiations will conclude “at the earliest possible time.”

Aso and Foreign Ministry officials refused to reveal the specific problem areas.

While the two nations didn’t reach any breakthroughs on trade, they did agree to make significant strategic progress, including the issuing of a joint declaration on security cooperation.

The two pledged to develop bilateral discussions on multiple levels and exchange information on regional security.

The prime ministers said the Maritime Self-Defense Force’s refueling activities in the Indian Ocean “constitute an important part in the international community’s effort to eradicate terrorism,” while Singh told reporters the “giant declaration on security cooperation” illustrates the desire of the two countries to “contribute to peace and stability in Asia and the world.”

The security agreement is expected to improve maritime safety for Japanese oil tankers that regularly cross the Indian Ocean.

Regarding the agreement struck between India and the United States on purchasing civilian nuclear technology, the two sides agreed that nuclear energy can play “an important role as a safe, sustainable and nonpolluting source of energy.”

But they also affirmed that international nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation efforts must be reinforced.

During the meeting, Aso told Singh that Japan’s decision to back the U.S.-India deal “was a very difficult one to make,” urging India to join the nonproliferation treaty and keep its self-imposed moratorium on nuclear arms development, Foreign Ministry officials said.

Singh expressed gratitude that Japan and other members of the Nuclear Suppliers Group backed the deal, but acknowledged Japan’s concerns.

India wants to collaborate on nuclear technology with Japan but will “move at the pace at which the Japanese people and government are comfortable with,” he said.

Singh, who spent three days in Japan, met Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko and Japanese business leaders Wednesday in Tokyo. He will return to India on Thursday, before visiting Beijing to attend the Asia-Europe Meeting.

Earlier in the day, Singh spoke with Foreign Minister Hirofumi Nakasone and agreed to strengthen bilateral ties. He told Nakasone that Japan has gained wide support in India thanks to its aid efforts, including financial support for the construction of the Delhi Metro.