India-Japan Civil Nuclear Cooperation: Contextualising Abe's Visit

21 Sep, 2017    ·   5366

Shivani Singh considers the existing bottlenecks to the full implementation of the agreement in light of Abe's recent visit

Shivani Singh
Shivani Singh
Researcher, Nuclear Security Programme (NSP)

The strong Indo-Japan bilateral relationship is a testament to the growing economic, cultural and strategic exchanges that both countries have shared in the past and this dynamic has continued to flourish under the regimes of PM Narendra Modi and Shinzo Abe. Abe’s recent visit to India was much awaited given that this was the first meeting between the two leaders since the Agreement for Cooperation in the Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Energy between India and Japan came into force on 21 July 2017.

One of the expectations from the meeting was a clearer picture of the extent of civil nuclear cooperation that the two countries can achieve. This was attained to an extent in the sense that certain concerns regarding the deal were put to rest. However, there was one important and rather contentious area of the agreement that was left untouched: the termination clause envisaged in article 14. This article seeks to assess this visit in light of the past and present challenges regarding the agreement and whether this visit was successful in addressing the these concerns.

Past Hurdles
The India-Japan Civil Nuclear Agreement aims to facilitate a smooth exchange of nuclear technology, equipment, nuclear material (source material and fissionable material) and non-nuclear material between the two countries subject to the clauses of the agreement. However, the road to this agreement was a bumpy one. The resistance seen on Japan’s part in forging this deal emanated not only from India’s non-signatory status to Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) but also from various aspects of India’s nuclear liability regime.

In addition, India's refusal to completely bifurcate its civil and military nuclear programmes and create two separate areas of domain knowledge, a condition put forth by Japan during the negotiations were other impediments. Japanese anti-nuclear lobbyists had major concerns about the possibility of the imported fissile material for being used for the development of nuclear weapons after reprocessing the spent fuel.

Existing Bottlenecks
Most of the concerns were put to rest by India during the nuclear deal negotiations. However, a major bone of contention in realising the full potential of this deal on both ends - which was not addressed during this visit - is the termination clause envisaged in article 14 of the agreement.

Currently, the clause grants the party seeking termination of the agreement the right of return of all “nuclear material, non-nuclear material or equipment transferred pursuant to this Agreement and any special fissionable material recovered or produced as a by-product.” This is fashioned around the same template as the Indo-US nuclear deal where the parties have a ‘right to recall’, and is also mentioned in a separate document recording the views of both parties. Japan’s commitment to this clause arises from the pressures of domestic forces.

However, there is some ambiguity over whether this clause is binding on India. The details of the termination process have not been specified either. For example, the condition that components should be returned in the event of termination of the agreement is  problematic because it involves shutting down a reactor, dismantling and shipping back massive vessel components which would be highly radioactive. Who will bear the cost of the dismantling and transport of the material is also not clear.

Positive Outcomes
Shinzo Abe’s visit was an opportunity for both countries to tie up loose ends and facilitate a smooth implementation of the clauses under the agreement.

Both countries expressed gratitude at the entry into force of the civil nuclear agreement and decided on setting up a working group “to strengthen bilateral cooperation in this field and reiterated their shared view that the Agreement reflects a new level of mutual confidence and strategic partnership in the cause of clean energy, economic development and a peaceful and secure world.” The details of this working group and its functions have not been chalked out yet.

Concerns regarding India’s non-NPT status continue to flare up tensions in Japan now and then, mostly advanced by think-tanks and civil society groups. Therefore, the joint statement reaffirming “their shared commitment to the total elimination of nuclear weapons” gave weight to India’s intentions of using the imported nuclear material and technology for civilian purposes alone.

India and Japan also reiterated their commitment to an early conclusion of negotiations on a non-discriminatory, multilateral and effectively verifiable Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT). This will help in setting the right tone to ensure nuclear safety and security in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy.

Seen in retrospect, the meeting between Abe and Modi was successful in further strengthening nuclear energy cooperation between the two countries, and has laid the foundation for further bilateral collaboration on clean energy.  However, the visit could have gone a step further in addressing concerns regarding the termination clause in the agreement to overcome the last hurdle towards optimising the benefits of such cooperation.