As Modi heads to Tokyo, is India-Japan nuclear deal in the offing?

Since Japanese PM Shinzo Abe is considering another snap election some time in January 2017, he would tread cautiously.

 |  7-minute read |   10-11-2016
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India-Japan relations have deepened faster than expected since 2006, when the two countries signed a strategic partnership agreement making a commitment to hold an annual prime-ministerial-level meeting. Interestingly, in the same year they agreed in their joint statement that “nuclear energy can play an important role as a safe, sustainable and non-polluting source of energy".

However, they kept it vague whether they will go for a civil nuclear cooperation agreement. Whenever summit-level talks between India and Japan take place, the question comes to the fore in the Indian media and strategic circles speculating the prospect of the deal. The speculation is rife once again as Prime Minister Narendra Modi prepares to visit Tokyo and hold talks with his Japanese counterpart, Shinzo Abe.

But this time it is no more a secret whether the two countries will sign the deal or postpone it for further negotiation. It may be mentioned here that Japanese vice-foreign minister Shinsuke Sugiyama visited India on October 30, 2016, to give “finishing touches” to the text of civil nuclear cooperation ahead of a summit meeting between India and Japan in Tokyo.

Now instead of speculating on the conclusion of the deal, the debate should shift to the text and terms of the conditions of the final deal, and whether it will contain a nullification clause which was a stumbling block during the previous negotiation, delaying the deal.

Though Japanese and Indian sources are not disclosing the details of a prospective nuclear deal and its terms and conditions, Japanese diplomatic sources have dropped hints about the understanding reached between the two governments. This suggests a final agreement to seal the deal is in the offing.

Negotiation shifts from nullification clause to advance consent for use of Japanese technology           

In October 2016, the Mainichi Shimbun, quoting diplomatic sources, reported that India and Japan have agreed to include a provision in the prospective pact which will likely spell out that “Japan will permit Indian power producers to reprocess spent fuel at designated facilities on the condition that the country accepts comprehensive inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency” (IAEA). 

The Yomiuri Shimbubn in December 2015, analysing the prospective deal, reported that Japan has asked India to meet three conditions to pave the way for a bilateral nuclear agreement. These were a) continue the suspension of nuclear testing b) accept IAEA inspections and c) prohibit the transfer of nuclear technologies to a third country. The recent report validates the claim that Japan indeed wants India to put its reactors under IAEA supervision.

Notably, Japan will consider India’s further nuclear tests a “threat” to its “national security” and India has agreed to accept such stipulation, according to the Japanese sources.

However, it remains unexplained and undefined how a further test will pose a threat to Japan’s national security. And “if threats to national security or issues regarding the protection of nuclear materials arise", Japan will withdraw such “advance consent” to use its nuclear technology, reports the Mainichi.

During the earlier negotiations, Japan had been pressing India to include a “nullification clause” in the text of the civil nuclear cooperation agreement stipulating that “Japan will nullify the agreement if India conducts further nuclear tests.”

fukushima-embed_111016041331.jpg Various groups have urged the Indian leadership to take cue from the Fukushima nuclear crisis and not install nuclear reactors.

However, India had been citing its “unilateral moratorium on nuclear testing", resisting the inclusion of such a clause. The stalemate between the two continued over this issue, delaying the conclusion of the deal.

An “in-principle” agreement for nuclear cooperation in a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signed by the two countries during PM Shinzo Abe’s visit to New Delhi last year rekindled hope for conclusion of the deal. They agreed to finalise the deal following “technical details” and after formalising the “internal procedure".

Japanese media reports ahead of Modi’s visit to Tokyo are indicative of the fact that both have finalised the “technical details” and have reached a middle-ground to seal the deal. Instead of asking for a nullification clause which was too direct, Japan is indicating that it will withdraw “advance consent” to use its technology.

This ambiguous phrase is not different from a nullification clause. It is primarily aimed at assuaging the concerns of anti-nuclear Japanese constituencies which had opposed selling this technology to non-NPT signatories, including India.

How would Japan’s domestic constituencies react to the deal?

In the past, when details of nuclear negotiations came to the fore, concerns were raised by the mayors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in their open statements and in Japanese newspaper editorials.

If the text of a final India-Japan nuclear deal goes as per the speculations in Japanese media, it will likely assuage concerns of some of its domestic constituencies but not from Hiroshima and Nagasaki and people displaced by the Fukushima nuclear crisis who oppose export of this technology, fearing that it will likely bring similar disasters in host countries.

As Japan prepares the ground to sign the deal during Modi's visit, Asahi Shimbun in its editorial on November 9 has questioned the deal, asking: “Is it really appropriate for Japan, which caused the nuclear disaster at Fukushima, to export nuclear reactors to India? We can never condone the folly of only seeking immediate commercial gains in selling nuclear reactors to a country that is turning its back on nuclear nonproliferation.”

The daily is of the view that “India has trampled on the very spirit of nuclear non-proliferation” and thus a nuclear cooperation should not be signed with the South Asian nation.

Since the profitability in nuclear technology trade is huge (around $150billion), Japan, which wants to export key technology including nuclear technology for its own economic revival, would still ignore the public concerns, if it persists further.  

It may be noted that Japan took almost ten years to reach this stage owing to public concerns. The issue of nuclear cooperation first appeared in the 2006 India-Japan joint statement but got delayed because of various factors, including the Fukushima crisis and Japan’s insistence for a nullification clause.

Japanese trade lobbies, however, were pushing the government to expedite the process. After the conclusion of a nuclear deal in mid-November, which is a good possibility, the deal would need to cross one final hurdle; approval by the Japanese Diet.

Since Abe is considering another snap election sometime in January 2017, he would likely tread cautiously - not to affront its anti-nuclear constituency - and the deal may be put to ratification after the elections.

How would the deal be viewed in India and how would it impact its energy security?        

The deal may also ignite the debate about using nuclear technology within India. In the past, various groups have urged the Indian leadership to take cue from the Fukushima nuclear crisis and not install nuclear reactors. Since India does not fall under the same seismic zone as Japan, it still can consider using nuclear energy (which is roughly 3 per cent at present) for its overall energy mix, though the deal is unlikely to push the ratio substantially as various estimates suggests.

It will be below the double digit. However, while selecting the nuclear reactors’ installation sites, it should pay attention that the reactors should not sit atop a seismic fault. Also it should employ the safety standards that Japan adopted following the Fukushima crisis.

Moreover, considering the vulnerability of nuclear reactors as well as domestic hurdles in installing them, India should be cautious not to put all eggs in one basket, that is nuclear energy, and should also explore other sources of renewable energy to meet its energy demand.   

Also read: How Modi-Abe bonhomie is giving a boost to India-Japan ties


Shamshad A Khan Shamshad A Khan

The writer was until recently a Senior Researcher at Keio University’s Keio Research Institute. He has a PhD degree in Japanese Studies from JNU.

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