Commentary | COUNTERPOINT

Modi and Abe are at the nuclear altar again

by Jeff Kingston

Special To The Japan Times

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will visit Japan for a summit with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Nov. 11 and 12, and it is expected they will finally seal the deal on an elusive civil nuclear cooperation accord. When Abe visited India last year there was widespread speculation that the agreement would be signed but, instead, both sides settled for agreeing in principle while allowing more time to iron out remaining differences — chiefly Japan’s reluctance to enter into an agreement with a nation that has not signed the nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

The accord has been pending since 2008 but the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster put it on the backburner as nuclear energy safety concerns prevailed over realpolitik. Washington has been courting New Delhi as part of its containment policy toward China, striking a deal under George W. Bush in 2006 that would facilitate India’s access to civilian nuclear energy technologies.

The nuclear reactor business in developed nations is grim due to economic unviability, so the prospects of receiving massive contracts in India over the coming decades is a potential lifeline for the nuclear divisions of Japanese companies such as Toshiba/Westinghouse and Mitsubishi/Areva. Moreover, Areva’s new generation reactor being built in Finland is a debacle, plagued by endless delays and vast cost overruns that have reinforced negative perceptions, driving the company to the brink of bankruptcy.

On the nuclear deal, Abe is taking his cues from America. The U.S. helped establish the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) back in 1975 to isolate and penalize India for carrying out nuclear bomb tests in 1974 and not signing the NPT. But that was then. China’s expanding economic and military might has changed the calculus to such an extent that the U.S. championed India’s membership in the 48-member NSG earlier this year and leaned on other member states to also accept India’s assurances that it would not conduct more tests in lieu of signing the NPT. This is not because the U.S. agrees with India’s view that the treaty is discriminatory and useless, but rather an expedient stance aimed at shoring up bilateral security ties and boosting commercial prospects.

But these plans went awry as China vetoed India’s application to join the group, signaling its resolve to not let America unilaterally change the rules of the game to suits its interests. It was also a salvo aimed at India, an expression of displeasure about Modi’s lean toward Washington. Relations between these neighbors have been prickly since the Sino-Indian border conflict of 1962, a resounding defeat for India that was a key factor in its development of nuclear weapons. This pushed Pakistan to follow suit. Now China is building nuclear reactors for Islamabad, India’s mortal enemy, as part of its “one belt, one road” strategy that includes major infrastructural projects to be financed by Beijing’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB).

China’s strategy entails leveraging its economic heft for geopolitical gain, and the AIIB is the mechanism to make that happen. Chinese assertiveness in contiguous areas has spooked Washington and upped the ante for Japan. Most Japanese may be opposed to nuclear energy and exports — and confused by Tokyo’s convoluted nuclear diplomacy — but Abe is prioritizing a nuclear alliance with India.

Before Abe came to power in 2012, Japan dragged its feet on finalizing the energy deal because it opposed doing so on principle; India was a renegade nuclear power and should not be given a pass based on a written promise it would not engage in more nuclear weapon testing. Under strong U.S. pressure post-9/11, Japan eased tough bilateral sanctions that had been imposed after the 1998 tests. Washington framed this as a quid pro quo for India’s help to fight the war on terror. Now it is going further and “rehabilitating” India due to the escalating cold war with China and ongoing efforts to enhance trilateral security cooperation.

Modi’s assumption of power in 2014 revived momentum for the civil nuclear accord. Abe is eager to finalize the deal now so he can get the Diet’s approval in early 2017 and then move to secure financing. Abe is also hoping for more defense and infrastructure deals in what could become a significant market for Japan. There is, however, the matter of liability if something goes wrong, an issue that the Modi government has tried to finesse in ways that still leave reactor vendors apprehensive. Union Carbide’s role in the 1984 Bhopal chemical disaster casts a long shadow over multinational perceptions of the potential liability associated with a nuclear accident.

The sticking points remain the same: Japan wants a proviso allowing suspension of cooperation in the event that India violates its weapons testing moratorium and wants India to agree to International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections to ensure no diversion of processed fuel to nuclear weapon programs. This would help Abe secure Diet approval.

M.V. Ramana, a physicist at Princeton University, opposes the accord, saying that “the only thing that is driving the attempts to strike a deal is the interest of both governments to see imported nuclear reactors constructed in India.”

“There is widespread local opposition to these plans to construct nuclear plants, and these would be extremely expensive,” he says. Instead of rural electrification, he asserts that the primary beneficiaries “will be the Indian nuclear establishment, nuclear vendor companies and Indian corporate elites.”

An Indian writer wryly confided that his government’s reassurances about nuclear safety requires one to ignore India’s prevailing chaos and disorder and to imagine that the nuclear sector is a total outlier, an oasis of meticulous precision where strict safety measures are scrupulously enforced. That’s a lot to imagine.

But Abe appears more concerned about making money, countering China, courting Modi and navigating the riptides of the U.S. security alliance. The recent hit film “Shin Godzilla” conveys concerns about the reliability of the U.S. alliance — a view reflected in a 2015 NPO Genron poll in which just 9.2 percent of Japanese see America as a very reliable ally. In the film, Washington is portrayed as willing to nuke Tokyo to protect U.S. national interests. In this context, inking the civil nuclear pact with India at Washington’s behest troubles Japanese and Indians who prioritize nuclear safety over the dictates of alliance politics.

Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan and author of “Nationalism in Asia: A History Since 1945.”