Abe's India visit tips balance on China

Abe's India visit tips balance on China
Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (left) and his Indian counterpart Manmohan Singh shake hands after addressing the media at Hyderabad House in New Delhi January 25, 2014.

It has been a season of 'firsts' for the Japan-India relationship. Following in the footsteps of Emperor Akihito who became the first Japanese monarch to pay a state visit to India in early-December, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, yesterday, became the first Japanese prime minister to grace India's annual Republic Day parade as the chief guest. Earlier in December, the Japan Maritime Self Defense Force (JMSDF) and the Indian Navy had conducted their first bilateral maritime exercise off the Indian coast in the Bay of Bengal.

Prime Minister Abe is no stranger to India. During his first stint as premier, he had delivered one of his most memorable foreign policy speeches in New Delhi to a joint sitting of the Indian Parliament. In that speech, he had called for a dynamic coupling of the Pacific and Indian Oceans as seas of freedom and democracy that would knit together a 'broader Asia'-a theme he returned to in his first major foreign policy address in Jakarta last January following re-election.

In the intervening years, the Japan-India strategic and global partnership too has taken impressive strides forward. In October 2008, Prime Ministers Aso and Singh issued a Joint Declaration on Security Cooperation and Prime Ministers Hatoyama and Singh followed through in December 2009 with an Action Plan to breathe life into that joint declaration. Though the relationship lost some of its earlier vitality during the latter years of the DPJ governments, Prime Minister Abe appears poised to re-inject energy into this vital bilateral relationship. To elevate ties to the next level though, three difficult issues will have to be grappled with-none of them convenient or easy from Tokyo's perspective.

First, Japan and India must bring their bilateral negotiations on civil nuclear cooperation to an early and successful closure. Bilateral talks to conclude an agreement have proceeded fitfully for a little under four years now-punctuated no doubt by the Fukushima tragedy-and appear to be deadlocked on issues related to nuclear testing and the right to reprocess spent fuel. Tokyo insists on wording in the main text that would allow termination of nuclear technology transfers if New Delhi violates its self-declared moratorium on testing; New Delhi prefers such language to be absent or, at best, shunted aside to an annexure to the main text. The US-India civil nuclear agreement had creatively dealt with this conundrum by eliminating any references to testing but also making the overall agreement contingent to short-notice termination on the basis of any-and-all eventualities (including presumably detonation of a nuclear devise). The Kazakhstan-India civil nuclear cooperation agreement, meantime, contains a robust 'peaceful uses' clause that explicitly proscribes New Delhi from using any transferred material for nuclear explosives or military purpose. Both these agreements could serve as a useful template.

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