LONDON — When Japanese Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada was in Delhi a few days back for the fourth round of strategic dialogue between Japan and India, he made it clear that negotiations on a civilian nuclear cooperation pact are going to be rather difficult.

There are indications that these negotiations have stalled. It now looks unlikely that this pact will be signed during Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Japan in October as originally planned.

It was in June that India and Japan began discussions on the possibility of Japan signing a civil nuclear agreement with India. It was a significant move for Japan, which has long been critical of Indian nuclear policy. Though India-Japan ties have blossomed in recent years on a whole range of issues, the nuclear issue has been a major irritant in the relationship.

The Indian nuclear tests of 1998 marked the lowest point in bilateral relations, as Japan reacted strongly to the nuclearization of the subcontinent. Tokyo suspended economic assistance for three years as well as put on hold all political exchanges between the two nations.

Japan’s economic measures against India included freezing grant aid for new projects, suspending yen loans, withdrawing Tokyo as a venue for the India Development Forum, cautiously examining loans to India by international financial institutions and imposing strict control over technology transfers.

Japan took the lead in various international forums, such as those sponsored by the Group of Eight, in condemning nuclear tests by India and Pakistan, while the Japan’s Diet described the tests as constituting a threat to the very survival of human life.

This strong reaction from Japan was in many ways understandable, given that the Japanese are the only people to have experienced attacks by nuclear weapons. The effect of that experience continues to shape their worldview.

Yet, many in India saw the Japanese reaction as hypocritical for apparently brushing aside India’s genuine security concerns even as Japan enjoyed the security guarantee of the U.S. nuclear umbrella.

As many in India see it, Japan’s commitment to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), in many ways, remains predicated upon its reliance on the nuclear deterrence provided by America.

The U.S.-India civilian nuclear energy cooperation pact has, however, changed the nuclear realities and Japan is now trying to come to grips with India’s new nuclear power status. Though Japan has supported the U.S.-India civilian nuclear energy cooperation treaty, there remain differences between Japan and India on the nuclear issue.

Japan continues to insist that India sign the NPT and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, whereas India has no intention of doing so given its long-standing concern that these treaties are discriminatory. Current Japanese law allows nuclear exports only to states that, unlike India, are either a party to the NPT or allow the International Atomic Energy Agency to safeguard all its nuclear facilities.

If India decides to go in for more nuclear tests in the future, the Japanese government of that day could be forced to respond in a manner that might be inimical to India-Japan ties.

In 2008, when the Nuclear Suppliers Group approved the U.S.-India nuclear pact, Japan went with the consensus that India’s nuclear record warranted support for the deal. There has been a gradual evolution in the Japanese approach toward the Indian nuclear capability. It refused to view the U.S.-India nuclear pact as a danger to the global nonproliferation framework and did not object to the decision of the NSG to amend its guidelines enabling India to trade in nuclear technology and fuel.

But the Japanese government ruled out any civilian nuclear technology transfer to India, at least for the time being, as domestic sentiment in Japan remained strongly antinuclear.

Since obtaining the NSG approval, India has signed civilian nuclear cooperation agreements with states as diverse as Britain, France, Russia, Kazakhstan, Namibia, Angola and, most recently, Canada. Many in Japan argue that that it would be foolhardy for Japan not to be part of this trend.

Given the involvement of Japanese firms in the U.S. and French nuclear industry, an Indo-Japanese pact is essential if U.S. and French civilian nuclear cooperation with India is to be realized. Japanese approval is needed for GE-Hitachi and Toshiba-Westinghouse to sell nuclear reactors to India.

Given the benefits that Japanese nuclear industry will reap from such a deal, it should not be a surprise that the Japanese Atomic Energy Agency and the Ministry of Economics, Trade and Industry have pulled out all the stops in support of the deal.

Still, antinuclear sentiment remains a powerful force in Japan. The Nagasaki Declaration, issued Aug. 9 in memory of the atomic-bomb attack on that city in 1945, specifically underlined Indo-Japanese negotiations on the nuclear pact. It berated the Japanese government for “promoting negotiations on a nuclear agreement with India, a non-NPT member country with nuclear weapons” and stated that Japan “is now severely weakening the NPT regime, which is beyond intolerable.”

In light of this staunch opposition to the nuclear pact, the Japanese government has asked India to include in the pact the statement that Delhi made to assuage the concerns of NSG members in Vienna in 2008. India’s statement at the NSG meeting basically reaffirmed India’s no-first-use policy with regard to nuclear weapons, committed India to work toward successful completion of the Fissile Missile Cut-Off Treaty and emphasized export-control policies to prevent the spread of sensitive technologies.

Despite Japan’s demands, it is unlikely that India will agree to formalize these commitments. Instead, it will insist that, as with the other states with which it has concluded similar nuclear pacts, the “123 agreement” signed with the U.S. should form the basis of its pact with Tokyo.

The commercial dimension of the pact is certainly significant, but much more important is the political symbolism accompanying the deal at a time when the rise of China is upending the regional and global balance of power.

An India-Japan civil nuclear pact would be crucial in signaling that both nations would like to build a partnership to bring stability to the region at a time when China is putting the entire nonproliferation regime in jeopardy by going all out to reward Pakistan with civilian nuclear reactors.

Tokyo and Delhi have a great opportunity to rebalance the strategic milieu in Asia-Pacific, and opportunities like this do not knock twice. Japan and India may very well decide to put things off until tomorrow, but the tomorrow they envision may never come.

Harsh V. Pant teaches at King’s College London.

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