The Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research


The Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research

The Importance of Japan-India Nuclear Cooperation

February 4, 2016

The memorandum on Japan-India civil nuclear cooperation that Prime Ministers Abe and Modi signed last December, while no more than an agreement in principle, has raised contentious issues regarding the transfer of nuclear technology to a country that has not joined the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. National security expert Satoru Nagao weighs these concerns against the economic and strategic merits of a full-fledged agreement on nuclear energy cooperation.

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Prime Minister Abe being greeted by Prime Minister Modi prior to a bilateral summit in New Delhi in December 2015. © Official Website of the Prime Minister of Japan and His Cabinet (
Prime Minister Abe being greeted by Prime Minister Modi prior to a bilateral summit in New Delhi in December 2015. © Official Website of the Prime Minister of Japan and His Cabinet (

At a bilateral summit in New Delhi last December, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi signed a memorandum of agreement on civil nuclear cooperation. While not without symbolic importance, the agreement does not, in itself, open the way for the transfer of Japanese nuclear-power technology to India. Before the two sides can conclude a full-fledged nuclear cooperation pact, they must resolve their differences over such key issues as Japanese companies’ liability for nuclear accidents, the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel, [1] and the consequences of any future testing of nuclear weapons by India.

Given these thorny issues, is such an agreement even worth pursuing? This is a topic that needs to be debated more fully. In the following, I offer my own perspective on the implications of Japan-India civil nuclear cooperation from the standpoint of economic growth and development, nuclear nonproliferation, and regional strategic concerns.

Boosting the Indo-Pacific Economy

From an economic standpoint, I believe that an agreement on the transfer of civil nuclear technology between Japan and India is vital to India’s continued economic growth and development. Let me explain why.

India’s economy began to develop rapidly not long after the government overhauled its economic policies in the 1990s. But energy is the booming Indian economy’s Achilles’ heel. In 2013, India overtook Japan as the world’s third-largest importer of crude oil. [2] The government is looking at ways to expand the use of renewables, but given the current state of technology, nuclear power is the only realistic means of ensuring a steady supply of energy to meet the nation’s burgeoning demand for electric power without increasing greenhouse gas emissions.

With this in mind, New Delhi has already concluded nuclear energy agreements with a number of countries. US and French companies are eager to launch nuclear power projects in India. But they cannot proceed without large forged components from Japan, some of which claim 80% of the global market. And Japan cannot supply those components without a full-fledged nuclear agreement resolving the aforementioned issues between Japan and India. For this reason a Japan-India nuclear deal is crucial to India’s nuclear energy program and essential to resolving India’s energy dilemma.

This is not India’s problem alone. Just as China’s economic slowdown has affected the many countries around the world that trade with China, Japan and other nations of the Indo-Pacific region have a large stake in the Indian economy. A Japan-India nuclear agreement is an essential key to the steady growth of India’s economy and, by extension, that of the entire region.

India’s Nukes and the Nonproliferation Regime

India is not a party to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) because it proceeded with its nuclear weapons program even though it was not recognized as a nuclear-weapon state under the terms of the treaty. India’s maintains that it is arbitrary and unfair to acknowledge the right of China to possess nuclear weapons but to deny the same right to India simply because it began testing its weapons a decade later.

Some would argue that the Japanese government should not enter into a civil nuclear agreement with a country that has not committed to the NPT and is unlikely to do so any time soon. However, if one considers the matter carefully, it becomes clear that civil nuclear cooperation between Japan and India would have virtually no negative impact on the nonproliferation regime.

The main reason is that India has demonstrated a firm commitment to nonproliferation. It launched its own nuclear weapons program some 50 years ago, and in all the time since, it has rigorously guarded against proliferation. In this sense, it clearly differs from countries like Pakistan, North Korea, and Iran, which have conducted shady dealings on the “nuclear black market.” If India continues to control its nuclear technology as carefully as it has for the past half-century, cooperation on the use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes should not undermine the NPT.

Second, even if the international community were to acknowledge India’s right to possess nuclear weapons as a sixth nuclear-weapon state, this would in no way weaken the NPT, since there are no other viable candidates for that status waiting in the wings. Pakistan, Iran, and North Korea have all disqualified themselves by their involvement in illicit trading of nuclear technology. Other countries that may have had nuclear weapons programs in the past (such as South Korea, Taiwan, Libya, Brazil, Argentina, and South Africa) have already shut them down. Although Israel is assumed to have nuclear weapons, it has a longstanding policy of refusing to publicly affirm the fact. In short, accepting India’s status as a nuclear state would in no sense undermine the nuclear nonproliferation regime. This is why 11 countries have already signed civil nuclear cooperation agreements with India, namely, the United States, Russia, Britain, France, Australia, Canada, South Korea, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Argentina, and Namibia.

Regardless of such international trends, some people nonetheless argue that Japan, as the only nation to experience atomic bombings, must maintain exceptionally rigorous anti-proliferation standards. But the truth of the matter is that India’s nuclear policies are very similar to Japan’s. Both countries are committed to the “total elimination of nuclear weapons,” as they reaffirmed in last December’s joint statement. [3] At the same time, both countries realistically acknowledge the need for nuclear deterrence in today’s world.

When China began testing nuclear weapons in 1964, its neighbors were deeply alarmed. Over the next few years, Japanese policymakers weighed the idea of developing an independent nuclear capability—possibly in cooperation with West Germany—but such a step was ultimately deemed unnecessary on the grounds that the US “nuclear umbrella” afforded sufficient deterrence under the terms of the Japan-US alliance. What few people realize is that India also appealed to the United States for some sort of nuclear umbrella but was refused. Requests were also made, unsuccessfully, to the Soviet Union, Britain, and France.

Obliged by circumstances to develop and maintain its own deterrent capability, India has conducted nuclear tests on two occasions, in 1974 and 1998. Many in Japan were highly critical of India when it conducted the 1998 tests. But we need to keep in mind that Japan’s long-term commitment to abolishing nuclear weapons has not prevented it from taking advantage of the deterrent power of the US nuclear umbrella. In this respect, our position differs very little from India’s.

Given these circumstances, Japan’s commitment to nuclear nonproliferation and the NPT should not be regarded as a fundamental obstacle to the conclusion of a civil nuclear cooperation agreement with India.

Strategic Considerations

Finally, a Japan-India civil nuclear cooperation agreement has important strategic implications for the Indo-Pacific region.

Japan and India share deep concerns over China’s growing naval presence and its expanding influence in the East China Sea, South China Sea, and Indian Ocean. Particularly troubling is Beijing’s ongoing efforts to consolidate control over countries in Southeast Asia and beyond. In addition to military power, the export of infrastructure is one of the tools China has used to bring these countries under its sway. Its construction of nuclear power facilities in Pakistan is a case in point.

Of course, the Japan-US alliance is one key mechanism for countering this expansion. But it is unclear how much longer we can rely on US power alone. China is working slowly but surely to close the military gap with the United States; between 2000 and 2014, China added 41 new submarines to its fleet, while the United States commissioned just 11. To be sure, America’s submarine force is superior in capability, but in the East China Sea, South China Sea, and Indian Ocean, China is now in a position to deploy more submarines than the United States. This is the military reality underlying China’s increasingly coercive and adventurist conduct in the region. One may legitimately wonder how far that behavior will escalate as the modernization of China’s navy continues.

What this means is that other countries in the region need to cooperate to keep China’s political, economic, and military influence within bounds. For Japan, this means supporting India’s rise as a regional power by cooperating in the development of civil nuclear energy. India, of course, has its own concerns about China’s expanding power and has already responded by providing aid to countries like Vietnam and the Philippines. It is in Japan’s best interests to promote a stable power balance in the broader Indo-Pacific region by supporting India’s emergence as a regional power.

A Possible Deal Breaker

Given the economic, nonproliferation, and strategic considerations examined above, it seems clear that the recent Japan-India memorandum on civil nuclear cooperation is fundamentally a development to be welcomed. As I noted at the outset, however, the memorandum leaves a number of issues unresolved. Prominent among these is the question of whether India is likely to conduct further testing of nuclear weapons, and how such tests would impact on the bilateral agreement.

India has said that it already has all the data it needs to ensure normal operation of its nuclear weapons systems and upgrade their capability. However, if it turns out that the data is insufficient, then further tests might be needed in order to maintain India’s nuclear deterrent capability [4] .

If India were to conduct a nuclear test, nuclear cooperation between Japan and India—even for peaceful purposes—would become untenable, since there would be no assurance that resources provided by Japan had not been diverted to India’s nuclear weapons program. The depth of Japan’s concern over this can be gathered from the inclusion of the following item in the December 2015 Japan-India joint statement: “Prime Minister Abe stressed the importance of early entry into force of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) which should lead to nuclear disarmament.” Unfortunately, the CTBT can only go into effect after all 44 states listed in Annex 2 of the treaty have ratified it, and 8 of those states have yet to do so. But the fact that Japan insisted on including this reference in the joint statement is an indication of its concern over the possibility of future testing. India needs to keep Japan’s worries in mind.

Provided that India appreciates the need to refrain from nuclear testing, civil nuclear cooperation could well become the basis for a long-term cooperative relationship with major economic and strategic benefits for the region and no adverse effect on the nonproliferation regime. Such a development would give true meaning and substance to the idea of a “special strategic and global partnership.”

[1] Because the plutonium produced through reprocessing of nuclear fuel can be used in nuclear weapons, Japan has thus far refused to sign any cooperation agreement that grants the importing partner the right to reprocess its spent fuel domestically.

[2] “India Overtakes Japan as World’s No.3 Crude Importer, Reuters, January 30, 2014, .

[3] “Japan and India Vision 2025 Special Strategic and Global Partnership,” December 12, 2015, .

[4] “Nine Questions of India's Nuclear Strategy,” ISPSW Publications , June 2014, Issue No. 277, (Institut für Strategie- Politik- Sicherheits- und Wirtschaftsberatung, Germany)

    • Research Fellow, Tokyo Foundation
    • Satoru Nagao
    • Satoru Nagao

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