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Mainstream, VOL LII, No 8, February 15, 2014

Delhi fails to win Japan’s ‘Nuclear Trust’

Monday 17 February 2014, by M K Bhadrakumar

When joint statements after high-level visits become verbose, a sense of uneasiness arises: is it an attempt to make a mountain out of a mole-hill? That impression becomes unavoidable when one reads the joint statement issued after the visit of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to Delhi, January 25-27.

To be sure, Abe’s visit attracted a lot of commentaries by Indian pundits. Some have gone overboard by even attempting revisionist theories that India never ever heard about Japan’s war crimes (which is grossly untrue). But most have attempted to draw vicarious pleasure by assuming that China will be squirming with anger and gnashing its teeth (although there is no evidence of it) that India is ‘ganging up’ with Japan.

Clearly, a ridiculous level of immaturity is apparent in the Indian commentaries betraying a lack of awareness of the complexities of the geopolitics of the Asia-Pacific region. Indeed, Japan itself is groping for a way forward, as evident from Abe’s range of motivations in visiting the Yasukuni Shrine. The well-known Australian academic and author on China, Hugh White, recently flagged here the strategic ambiguities in the situation.

Now, juxtapose White with our pundits and one can make out that our folks are in a fantasyland without any clue to the real world out there on the other side of the Malacca Straits. China has a profound relationship with the ASEAN countries and to weave all these notions of “balance of power” as if these South-East Asian nations have no personality is rather myopic.

Do we assume, for instance, that the Indonesians are zombies who leave it to the Indians and the Japanese to carve out the future of the space they also happen to live in? Besides, how do the Indians and the Japanese “balance” the Chinese? Do the Japanese come and push back for us the Chinese from Depsang? Have the Japanese asked for the privilege of doing that? Do our coast guards go and defend the Senkaku islands—and if they do, what happens if the fedayeen come to attack Mumbai again?

At any rate, isn’t there another party—other than Japan—involved there in the East China Sea disputes: South Korea? Isn’t there, actually, another great power in the close vicinity of the region—Russia—who too would have a say in all this? Frankly, all this does need some rethink. We are not Boy Scouts. We should grow up.

No, sir, ”balance of power” is a hopelessly outmoded concept in the kind of international system that is unfolding in the contemporary world. No amount of balance of power can solve the crisis in Syria or Egypt. Nor can any single power solve such problems. This notion of “balance of power” belongs to where we first came across the doctrine—books on 19th century European history and politics we read in the university library. But we are now in the 21st century and are looking at a real world around us.

Abe’s visit, in fact, has shown the limits to the strategic understanding India and Japan can have even with the best of intentions of the two (current) leaderships. To put it bluntly, it has been with a purpose that Delhi embellished Abe’s visit and keyed up the atmospherics in its run-up with such a flurry of visitors from Japan.

Delhi is desperate about finalising the nuclear cooperation agreement. Given the unpredictability of Japanese politics and the entrenched non-proliferation lobbies in Japan, Delhi rightly assessed that this is the time to strike when the iron is hot, when Abe is around.

The desperation is understandable, because without this agreement, a forward movement in the nuclear business with the US and France within the ambit of the 2008 US-India nuclear becomes difficult and the deal itself becomes an albatross on the US-Indian relationship.

Put differently, without Japan giving the green signal, American and French companies cannot sell reactors to india, but Japan won’t give the green signal because it is not satisfied with India’s record and intentions as a nuclear power. Manmohan Singh is understandably anxious to cut the Gordian Knot before himself becoming part of history.

Interestingly, the Japanese side had it noted in the joint statement that Tokyo effectively hopes that India would sign the CTBT. Again, Japan has only promised to work with India for the latter’s membership of the technology control regimes. Neither side has explicitly supported the other’s claim to be a permanent member of the UN Security Council.

Suffice to say, we tried hard to get Abe to wrap up the nuclear cooperation agreement but it proved just not good enough. So, we are left with all these ”huge political statements”—Japan can invest in Arunachal Pradesh (with its own money, of course); Indians can have a three-year multi-entry visa for Japan; our NSA will have regular meetings with his Japanese counterpart (like he has with 36 other counter-parts in a calendar year); Japan will take part in the annual US-Indian Malabar naval exercise; Japan has relaxed the Maximum Residue Levels of Ethoxyquin to 0.2ppm on India’s shrimp exports to that country etc. And, the figures surely are impressive in Yen—they run into billions..

But at the end of the day, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will have to add a caveat when he claims that the 2008 US-India nuclear deal is his finest hour in international diplomacy. In sum, India-Japan strategic partnership is work in progress and the two countries are probing each other’s strategic intent.

Ambassador M.K. Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.

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