The breakthrough with Japan

Abe, an admirer of India, has been a strong advocate of New Delhi-Tokyo strategic ties

November 15, 2016 01:37 am | Updated November 17, 2021 06:12 am IST

>Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent visit to Japan packed quite a punch: from supporting India’s membership in the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) and rationalising the Mumbai-Ahmedabad bullet train timeline to the easing of Indian student visas, training of 30,000 Indians in Japanese-style manufacturing practices, and merging of India’s “Act East Policy” with Japan’s “Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy”. Even as Japanese business leaders and investors sought more “free and open” investment climate and relaxation of land acquisition policies, Mr. Modi called for greater participation and engagement of Japanese industries in India, saying it would benefit Japan and India’s MSME (micro, small and medium enterprises) sector. In the context of The Hague tribunal’s ruling on Chinese activity in the South China Sea, India and Japan also reiterated their commitment to respect freedom of navigation and overflight, and unimpeded lawful commerce, based on the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.

The nuclear deal But the signing of the civil nuclear deal was the biggest item on the agenda. With this, Japan is making an exception to its rule of not conducting nuclear commerce with any state that is not a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Though this pact has been the subject of intense negotiations between the two countries for the last six years, Mr. Modi and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s personal ties managed to give it new momentum. Against the backdrop of China’s reluctance to support India’s candidacy for the membership of the NSG, the import of Indo-Japanese nuclear cooperation assumes great salience.

This is a remarkable turnaround in many ways. After India tested nuclear weapons in 1998, Japan suspended economic assistance for three years and froze all political exchanges. The former included halting aid for new projects, suspension of yen loans and imposition of strict control over technology transfers. Tokyo called on the G8 countries to condemn the Indian and Pakistani nuclear tests.

The U.S.-India civilian nuclear energy cooperation pact ratified during the Bush administration ought to have assuaged many of Japan’s concerns. The deal effectively legitimised India’s nuclear programme and created formal channels for nuclear technology and materials intended solely for civilian use. Yet although Japan nominally supported the deal, it persisted in predicating any bilateral civilian nuclear cooperation on India signing the NPT and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

Ending the impasse The impasse had created a problem for Japanese business and for India. Current Japanese law allows nuclear exports only to states that are either party to the NPT or allow the International Atomic Energy Agency to safeguard all their nuclear facilities. As a result, Japanese companies with expertise in civilian nuclear technologies are barred from doing business in India, perhaps the reason why Japan's Ministry of Economics, Trade and Industry has long supported the deal. It also deprives Indians of the opportunity to buy high-quality civilian technology.

With the nuclear pact, bilateral defence ties will also get a boost with New Delhi’s decision to buy 12 US-2i amphibious aircrafts from ShinMaywa Industries in one of Tokyo’s first arms deals since Japan’s 2014 decision to lift its 50-year ban on arms exports. India had proposed assembling 10 of the planes in India as part of its ‘Make in India’ initiative and both sides had agreed on transfer of military technology. Tokyo is also stepping up its infrastructure investment in India with the two sides even taking forward potential Japanese investment in India’s development of the Chabahar port in Iran.

The relationship between India and Japan is perhaps the best it has ever been, largely because both countries have Prime Ministers who view the region and the world in very similar terms. Abe, a long-standing admirer of India, has been a strong advocate of strategic ties between New Delhi and Tokyo. He was one of the first Asian leaders to envision a “broader Asia”, linking the Pacific and Indian Oceans to form the Indo-Pacific. And as he has gone about reconstituting Japan’s role as a security provider in the region and beyond, India seems most willing to acknowledge Tokyo’s centrality in shaping the evolving security architecture in the Indo-Pacific.

The U.S.-India-Japan trilateral engagement is gaining momentum. The three countries held their first trilateral meeting at the foreign ministerial level in September 2015, followed by the six-day Malabar 2015 naval exercise in the Bay of Bengal a month later, which reflected a convergence of India’s Act East policy, Japan’s growing focus on freedom of navigation in the South China Sea and the Obama administration’s “strategic rebalance” towards the Indo-Pacific. Other trilateral configurations are also emerging with Japan, Australia and India interacting at a regional level. There is a growing convergence in the region now that the strategic framework of the Indo-Pacific is seen as the best way forward to manage the rapidly shifting contours of Asia.

Though Beijing views the framework with suspicion, many in China acknowledge that the Indo-Pacific has emerged as a critical regional area for India, and that China needs to synchronise its policies across the Indian Ocean region and the Pacific.

Harsh V. Pant is Head of Strategic Studies at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi, and Professor of International Relations at King’s College London.

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