Strategic networking in the Indo-Pacific

India’s ‘look-east’ policy is maturing, with diplomatic and political linkages built up with Asian forums providing the Modi government a foundation to establish overlapping non-formal networks based on strategic convergences. Outreach with Japan and Australia are the building blocks

Published - September 12, 2014 01:01 am IST

Last week, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s diplomatic outreach covered two established democracies of the Asia-Pacific, Japan and Australia. The outcomes reflect the geostrategic shift from the Euro-Atlantic to the Indo-Pacific and together, the two engagements provide interesting insights into Mr. Modi’s foreign policy agenda and diplomatic style.

The personal chemistry between Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo¯ Abe and Mr. Modi was evident during Mr. Modi’s Japan visit. Extra time spent together in Kyoto — feeding the carp and at the tea ceremony — sent its own message and further cemented the personal rapport between the two leaders. They come from very different socio-economic backgrounds but their shared sense of “nationalism” and “destiny” has drawn them to discover strategic convergences in their respective world views.

Both believe in the “Asian century” and are convinced that Japan as a “normal state” and an economically resurgent India can, together, be a force of stability and prosperity in the region. This sentiment can nurture a potential defence relationship, which for the first time finds prominent mention in the Tokyo Declaration.

The erstwhile “strategic and global partnership” with Japan has been elevated to a “Special Strategic and Global Partnership,” but negotiators were unable to bridge differences on the civil nuclear cooperation agreement that has been on the table now for over two years. Clearly, notwithstanding personal chemistry at the top, diligent homework and deft domestic political management are necessary, in democratic societies, to change deeply ingrained mindsets.

Civil nuclear opening Both sides are aware of the complexity of the negotiations, and for Japan (the only country to have suffered a nuclear attack), Hiroshima and Nagasaki remain vivid memories. So while it enjoys the security of a nuclear umbrella provided by the United States under a bilateral security treaty, it had taken a highly critical view of India’s nuclear tests. The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), which India cannot be a party to, remains an article of blind faith for Japan. Therefore, it was a breakthrough in 2011 when Japan agreed to open negotiations with us on civil nuclear cooperation. Yet, there is a long way to go, as three issues remain divisive. One, Japan would like India to sign the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT), while India’s position is that it will maintain a moratorium on testing. Two, India seeks to retain the right to reprocess spent fuel while providing assurances that this will only be under safeguards and for peaceful purposes, whereas Japan would like India to accept restrictions on its basic right to reprocess. Interestingly, Japan possesses a huge stockpile of reprocessed plutonium, more than 40 MT, of which three-fourths are stored in the United Kingdom and France. Third, Japan wants India to accept inspections over and above what India has agreed to with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), under “national flagging,” which India finds unacceptable. In short, India cannot accept more obligations than those negotiated in 2008 with the U.S., which provided for the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) waiver.

Out-of-the-box thinking Therefore, some out-of-the-box thinking is needed to conclude the India-Japan agreement, which not only has significant symbolic value, but is also crucial because Japanese companies supply critical components, including the massive 400 MT special steel Reactor Pressure Vessels, for the Westinghouse, GE and Areva nuclear power plants.

“Notwithstanding personal chemistry at the top, diligent homework and deft domestic political management are necessary, in democratic societies, to change deeply ingrained mindsets”

One way would be to accelerate the process of India’s membership into the ad hoc export control regimes — NSG, Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), Australia Group, and the Wassenaar Arrangement, a reference to which has also been made in the Tokyo Declaration. Second, 2015 will be the 70th anniversary of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings and it is likely that Japan will want to mark this event. This will provide an opportunity for India, given its long-standing commitment to a nuclear-weapon-free world, to conceive of and launch a new disarmament initiative together with Japan. Such approaches can help create an environment conducive to concluding pending negotiations.

Shift with Australia Coincidentally, the highlight of Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s visit to India was also the signing of the Civil Nuclear Cooperation Agreement, under negotiation since 2011. Once again, though Australia’s security is guaranteed by the U.S. nuclear umbrella, it has remained insensitive to India’s security concerns arising out of Chinese proliferation activity in Pakistan. In 1996, when India decided to withdraw from CTBT negotiations citing national security concerns, Australia flagrantly disregarded international law and took the lead in introducing a provision that made the CTBT entry into force contingent on India signing and ratifying it! In 1998, it was one of the most vociferous critics of India’s nuclear tests. Patient diplomacy and changing geopolitics in the region persuaded Australia to develop a better appreciation of India’s stabilising influence.

With a third of global uranium reserves, Australia exports nearly 7,000 MT of yellowcake annually. In 2008, it began exporting to China and in 2010, to Russia also. With India, our non-adherence to the NPT remained a stumbling block, especially with the Labor party, till Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard reversed the policy and opened the door for negotiations. While India’s requirements, at 1,000 MT annually, are modest and we also have supply arrangements with Canada, Mongolia, France and Kazakhstan, among others, the agreement with Australia has enormous symbolic value because of our vexed relationship on the whole nuclear non-proliferation issue.

Mr. Abbott’s statements about India — calling it “a model international citizen,” “a country that threatens no one and is a friend to many” and “the world’s emerging democratic superpower” — marks a change in Australian perceptions. Commercial aspects are relevant but need to be seen in perspective: Australia’s uranium exports earn $1 billion while its iron ore exports are estimated at over $60 billion! And given that Australia supported the NSG waiver for India in 2008, its inconsistent position of not permitting civilian nuclear cooperation with India was becoming more absurd. However, it was a change in Labor policy and adequate diplomatic homework that enabled Mr. Abbott to declare, when the agreement was signed, that “there exists a high level of trust between the two countries and Australia will be a reliable long term supplier for India’s uranium needs.”

So the shift with Australia has to be seen in strategic terms, with potential cooperation areas identified as counter-terrorism, cybersecurity, transnational crimes, disaster management and maritime security. New trilateral and quadrilateral dialogue platforms are being mentioned, involving both Japan and the U.S. A natural corollary to these dialogue platforms are joint maritime exercises.

New equations In recent years, such exercises have led to Chinese concerns being aired; Mr. Modi’s visit to Tokyo was carefully monitored in Beijing not least because President Xi Jinping is expected next week. Official reaction was muted, but some media reports described an India-Japan strategic relationship as “a crazy fantasy generated by Tokyo’s anxiety of facing a rising China.”

Later this month, Mr. Modi will have his first meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama, where, in addition to the Asia-Pacific, the nuclear issue will come into focus. The U.S. played a crucial role getting India the NSG waiver in 2008, which cleared the way for negotiations with France, the U.S. and Russia for the next generation of Light Water Reactors and enabled uranium fuel imports that have improved efficiency in our indigenous Pressurised Heavy Water Reactors to above 80 per cent. After the Nuclear Liability Law in 2010, negotiations with foreign suppliers hit a roadblock. However, even domestic suppliers have similar concerns that are impacting indigenous expansion plans.

The ratification of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Additional Protocol within a month of taking charge indicated that the Modi government considered nuclear power expansion an integral part of long-term energy security. However, forward movement will depend on resolving the dilemmas created by our liability laws and addressing supplier concerns in a transparent and legally tenable manner.

The “look-east” policy launched by Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao in 1992 is maturing. Diplomatic and political linkages built up with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) as a dialogue partner, as part of platforms such as the ASEAN Regional Forum, East Asia Summit and ASEAN Defence Ministers’ (plus) Meeting provide the Modi government a good foundation to establish overlapping non-formal networks based on strategic convergences. Outreach with Japan and Australia are vital building blocks; new equations need to be built with Indonesia and Vietnam, while Singapore will remain the tested friend and sounding board for the Modi government as it gears up for the Prime Minister’s meetings with Mr. Xi and Mr. Obama, followed by the East Asia Summit in Myanmar and the G20 summit in Brisbane, and coupled now with the return bilateral visit to Australia.

(Rakesh Sood, a former Ambassador, was the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation till May 2014.  E-mail: )

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