The risky nuclear deal with India

During his visit to New Delhi last week, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi agreed in principle on a civil nuclear cooperation pact that would pave the way for export of Japan’s nuclear power plant technology to India. It will be Japan’s first such deal with a country that has not signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. In working out its further details, the government needs to ensure a clear mechanism to prevent India from using the technology provided by Japan to enhance its nuclear weapons capabilities. This is Japan’s duty as the only country in history to suffer nuclear attacks.

Japan has so far refrained from signing a civil nuclear cooperation pact with countries that are outside the NPT regime. Such an agreement with India, a de facto nuclear weapons power, is tantamount to Tokyo accepting possession of nuclear weapons by a country that is not a party to the NPT, representing a major shift in Japan’s nuclear policy. It may compromise Japan’s position of calling on North Korea, which has withdrawn from the NPT regime, to end its nuclear weapons program. The pact would have the effect of further reduce India’s incentive to join the NPT regime. One wonders whether the Abe administration has seriously considered these effects.

The root of Japan’s talks with India for a civil nuclear pact goes back to a proposal made in the late 2000s by U.S. President George W. Bush to change the rules of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), a multinational body designed to control the export of nuclear apparatuses and technology to ensure nuclear nonproliferation. Behind the proposal was the Bush administration’s desire to strengthen the United States’ strategic ties with India. Although the NSG, whose members include the U.S., Russia, Germany, France, Britain, Canada and Japan, had prohibited civil nuclear cooperation with India because of its nuclear explosion test in 1974, the group in 2008 granted a waiver to India from its rules. Japan was initially cautious about the change but eventually succumbed to pressure from the U.S.

The change prompted the U.S., France, Russia, South Korea and others to sign agreements with India on nuclear cooperation. Abe’s move represents the desire of Japan’s nuclear power industry, whose prospect in the domestic market is uncertain following the 2011 Fukushima crisis, to enter the growing market of nuclear power in India. Currently, 21 nuclear power plants are in operation in the country, and there are plans to build over 30 more to meet the demand of its expanding population.

Abe says his agreement with Modi ensures that Japan’ nuclear technology provided to India would be used solely for peaceful purposes. A government official said Japan would halt the implementation of the pact if India tests a nuclear weapon, which it has not done since 1998. That would be a logical course of action for Japan.

A major problem with the planned pact is that Japan would allow India to reprocess nuclear fuel burned in a plant built with Japanese components and materials. Plutonium extracted through reprocessing of spent fuel can be converted into nuclear weapons. To prevent that, the pact needs to have a mechanism to verify the volume of such plutonium and its whereabouts. Still, the more plutonium India can secure for commercial purposes, the more it can possibly concentrate on using uranium produced in the country for military purposes. India and Pakistan, which also possesses nuclear weapons, are in confrontation for many years. Utmost efforts must be made to stop India from reinforcing its nuclear arsenal by taking advantage of this pact.

During the talks with Abe, Modi also agreed to introduce Japan’s shinkansen technology to build a high-speed railway linking Mumbai and Ahmedabad in western India. India hopes the project worth ¥1.8 trillion — for which Tokyo has agreed to extend ¥1.46 trillion in loans — will begin in 2017 and be put to service in 2023. Although Japan succeeded in exporting its bullet-train technology to Taiwan in the late 1990s, it lost out to China in October in the competition to sell the technology to Indonesia. India appears to have put priority on the safety and technological advantage of the shinkansen system. Japan should support India in the training of personnel, including operation controllers, drivers and maintenance workers, in addition to the export of hardware.

Abe’s latest visit to and deals with India are part of his administration’s efforts to check the rising influence of China by deepening Tokyo’s ties with New Delhi. The two leaders agreed that the Maritime Self-Defense Force will become a permanent participant in India and the U.S.’ annual joint naval drill known as Exercise Malabar, which is carried out with China’s rise as a regional maritime power in mind. Japan and India also signed deals paving the way for transfer of Japanese defense equipment and technology and exchanges of defense-related information.

While Japan and India are both wary of China’s growing maritime presence in the region, New Delhi is more flexible in its approach toward Beijing. For example, India is a founding member of the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, from which Japan, along with the U.S., has opted out. Abe should realize that building friendly ties with both China and India in a balanced manner will contribute to enhancing Japan’s interests.

  • Dinesh Dutta

    Japan doesn’t need to worry about friend India. We understand your concern on Hiroshima-Nagasaki atomic bombings but India’s nuclear weapons are to prevent a war with China and Pakistan.
    India has rogue neighbors – China and Pakistan, the nuclear weapons are for our defense.