WE can see the reasons why you've done it, but we can't accept or approve of it." So the former Japanese ambassador Noda told me, at the end of a discussion on India's nuclear tests with Asian security specialists whom I addressed at the International House of Japan. I was in Tokyo at the invitation of the Japanese foreign office, and specially the Japanese embassy, as part of efforts being made by the respective governments to get Indo-Japanese relations back to normalcy after the estrangement caused by the highly critical reaction of Japan's previous government, led by Prime Minister Hashimoto, to India's Pokhran tests. Japan was the most articulate and condemnatory critic of India at the G-8 Summit in Birmingham, held to discuss the implications of these tests. The country suspended all direct economic aid to India, refused to host the Aid India Consortium meeting scheduled to be held this summer in Tokyo, and opposed the aid coming to India from multilateral international financial institutions like the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank. Not only that, between May 13 and May 28, it diverted some of the assistance meant for India to Pakistan, hoping it might still persuade the latter country not to conduct nuclear tests. Japan also indicated an unwillingness to receive an Indian special envoy in June, stating that the Japanese public opinion would be in no mood to accept Indian explanations. The result: a break in communications with a country with which India has had the smoothest of political relations and long-standing fruitful economic cooperation.
By September-October, Japan took note of the fact that India had commenced a dialogue with all the major powers of the world to bring relations back to normal. After receiving an initial rebuff about deputing a special envoy, India was doubtful about taking any initiative to restore communications. It is in this context that the Japanese embassy thought of using non-official, but professionally knowledgeable channels to restore bilateral connections. Hence my trip to Tokyo.
Japanese authorities organised meetings and discussions for me with members of the Japanese Parliament, senior-most officials of the Japanese foreign office, and the Japanese prime minister's office. I found the Japanese establishment and Japanese academic circles divided in their opinions. Significantly, Japanese media seemed to be more critical of India. The impression I got was of a profound dichotomy affecting Japan's attitude towards India. On the one hand, there's a deeply-felt emotional and moral objection to India's nuclear weaponisation rooted in their experience and memories of the Hiroshima-Nagasaki bombings. On the other, there are genuine strategic and security apprehensions that the horizontal proliferation of nuclear weapons is likely to become an incremental phenomenon, especially in the Asian region, and can pose a general threat to security and stability in Asia. North Korea getting out of control, an assertive China (specially in the context of Jiang Zemin's attitude towards Japan, expressed during his recent visit to Tokyo), the possibilities of Indo-Pak nuclear confrontation on Kashmir, and the likelihood of countries like Iraq and Iran acquiring nuclear weapons, all worry Japan.
More interestingly, social scientists and academics point out, India's nuclear weaponisation may lend support to the nationalist right-wing segment's argument for the militarisation of Japan. They could argue that if a country like India, with a long tradition of opposition to nuclear weapons and commitment to genuine disarmament, was compelled to weaponise itself, why should Japan remain subjected to the limitations imposed on it at the end of World War II? The question they might ask is whether Japan should be self-reliant regarding its defence, in the face of potential threats from nuclearly weaponised countries in the Asia-Pacific region. This is the basis on which Japan opposes horizontal proliferation of nuclear weapons, believes in the relevance and legitimacy of its security arrangements with the US, and is supportive of the mainstream selective non-proliferatic agenda of the international community. There is, however, a realisation that Japan's punitive political and economic response to the Indian nuclear tests were perhaps excessive. This realisation is underpinned by the fact that while the other important powers have resumed dialogue with India in one form or another, Japan for some time has remained stuck in its political posture towards India.
THERE is, thus, a clear desire to move out of this groove. Jaswant Singh got the first signals when he met Mr Obuchi, Japan's current premier, in Manila during the ARF meetings in July. Japan also points out that while official economic assistance and other inputs into the Indian economy might have been suspended, Japan has not put any restrictions on the activities of its entrepreneurs in India. It's conscious of the importance of the Indian market, and seems to be getting back to a realistic attitude towards India after the initial emotional, impulsive response. Japanese foreign minister Masahiko Koumura, speaking at a colloquium in Tokyo sponsored by newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun on October 31, mirrored this attitude when he said "Japan will continue to persistently pursue dialogues with both India and Pakistan. Japan also intends to seek further progress on nuclear disarmament by the nuclear powers. We appreciate the fact that both India and Pakistan have been expressing a willingness to support nuclear non-proliferation."
Japan seems to be in the process of getting down from the high horse it climbed on to earlier this year. Given its traditionally substantive and symbiotic relations with India, India too should do all it can to bridge the chasm that had emerged in response to Japan's strong reaction.