SUNDAY MAGAZINE

East meets Far East

Hatoyama’s visit to India as Prime Minister of Japan, in 2009.Photo: AP  

It was past 9.00 p.m. in Tokyo on May 11, 1998, when Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee went on television with an announcement that sent shockwaves through the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “Today, at 3:45 p.m., India conducted three underground nuclear tests in the Pokhran range,” Vajpayee said.

Operation Smiling Buddha, as it was called, saw protests from around the world, but nowhere was the outrage felt more than in Japan, the only country to have suffered nuclear attacks.

For Japan, the tests were a betrayal of its anti-nuclear stand of decades, and the reaction was swift. Prime Minister Ryaturo Hashimoto announced the next morning that all political exchanges with India had been put on hold, and all Japanese aid, except humanitarian aid, frozen for three years. Japan withdrew Tokyo as the venue for the India Development Forum, announced a slew of other economic sanctions, but didn’t stop there. Three days later, Japan and the U.S. co-sponsored a strong statement against India at the G-8 summit in Birmingham.

 Many countries criticised India’s actions, including Canada which withdrew its ambassador, but none took the steps that Japan, and to a slightly lesser extent the U.S., did. In any case, the U.S. walked away from sanctions some years later, as it began to discuss a nuclear waiver for India, and the civil-nuclear deal was announced by President George Bush and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in 2005. For Japan, the journey of acceptance that India not only conducted nuclear tests, but also refused to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) or the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), has taken much longer.

In India, Japan’s reaction went down badly. Defence Minister George Fernandes had clearly mentioned the threat from China as India’s biggest concern in 1998, and the government had expected Japan, with its traditional rivalry to China, to understand that. “Instead, Japan went ballistic,” said an official who served at the time; Prime Minister Hashimoto even went to the extent of saying, “India must be taught a lesson.”

 Another cause for the Indian government’s hurt was that Japan was now treating India on a par with Pakistan, which had also conducted nuclear tests. For India, Japan was simply towing the U.S. line that turned a blind eye as Pakistan’s civilian government, and then its military dictator, helped proliferate weapons to Iran and North Korea, and also launched overt attacks like the Kargil war and funded terrorist attacks on India. What was worse, no G-8 member was even willing to call attacks by Kashmiri militants at the time, a ‘terrorist attack’.

 It wasn’t until 2001, after Japan lifted its sanctions, that the two countries were able to overcome the detente in relations, and Prime Minister Vajpayee decided to visit Tokyo. “Something or the other kept holding back relations between the two countries,” says Vibhav Kant Upadhyaya, Chairman of the India Centre that works on India-Japan ties, “Even when Vajpayee decided to go to Tokyo in January 2001, the Bhuj earthquake forced him to call the visit off.” Vajpayee was finally able to go to Japan in December that year, and along with Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi announced a “global partnership for the 21st century”, an indicator that they were both finally ready to look ahead, rather than at the hurt of the preceding few years.

Just after Vajpayee returned to Delhi, though, disaster struck. Terrorists attacked Parliament House on December 13, 2001; an operation that India blamed Pakistan for. Tensions began to rise as diplomatic ties were all but snapped, and the two sides rushed their armies to the border. While the world expressed its concern, no western country condemned the attack as a terror attack, and G-8 nations once again issued a statement equating India with Pakistan. “I felt something must be done,” Upadhyay remembers. “I asked the Japanese government if they would consider sending an envoy to show solidarity with India at such a time. Prime Minister Koizumi wasn’t very enthusiastic, but the leader of the opposition, Yukio Hatoyama, agreed to visit India.”

The visit, on January 10, 2002, became a game-changer. Not only did Hatoyama visit the site of the Parliament attack to pay his respects to the policemen killed, he also decided to go to Srinagar, along with his wife, to lay a wreath at the legislative assembly building that had been bombed by a suicide-bomber in October 2001. The Indian government was so touched by the gesture that Hatoyama was flown to Srinagar on an Air Force plane, accompanied by Fernandes. On Hatoyama’s return, the Diet passed a resolution condemning the attacks as acts of terror.

India-Japan relations had now truly entered a new phase in their relations. In the next few years, Japan grew closer to India’s position on many issues, even as it continued to urge the government to sign the international test ban treaties. Hatoyama returned to India in 2009 as Prime Minister and agreed to advance security cooperation, kicking off the annual strategic dialogue that is now a cornerstone of India-Japan ties.

Several governments since then, including Shinzo Abe’s current government, have faced criticism from the non-proliferation lobbies within Japan, but have withstood the pressure to reverse relations with India. If the rift between India and Japan had been caused by their own respective sensitivities over nuclear weapons and national security, relations were healed by their shared stand against terrorism.

And the visit to New Delhi and Srinagar in January 2002 that is perhaps not remembered as well for its contribution to that healing process.



Operation Smiling Buddha, as it was called, saw protests from around

the world, but nowhere was the outrage felt more than in Japan, the only country to have suffered nuclear attacks.