There is potential for a much needed change in stalemated international relations in the Northeast Asia region in the wake of devastation suffered by Japan from the severe earthquake and tsunami.
According to initial estimates, the human death toll could rise to more than 10,000, losses which would be more than double those suffered from the Kobe earthquake in 1995. And economic losses this time are estimated as high as 16 trillion yen (about US$20 billion), 1.6 times higher than the Kobe disaster.
In response to the catastrophe, many countries have given assistance to Japan, their humanitarian concern replacing any current or historical political differences. Even countries that might have territorial and strategic disputes with Japan have extended sincere sympathy to the Japanese people, shelving their differences and giving timely aid.
In these circumstances, tensions previously existing in the Northeast Asia region have experienced some sort of turning point.
When the Democratic Party of Japan ( DPJ ) was swept into power in September 2009, friction developed in Japan-US relations when the administration of new prime minister Hatoyama Yukio pursued a policy of “drifting away from America and backing Asia.”
Also, there were other events in “play,” such as the sinking of South Korean warship Cheonan, the Yeonpyeong Island bombing incident, the vessel collision near Diaoyu Island, and the Japan-Russia territorial dispute. These unrelated incidents contributed to a regional pot pouri which upset the delicate North-South Korea relations, China-Japan links and Japan-Russia ties.
As a result, and in a short period, the Northeast Asia situation precipitated into an unprecedented stalemate. The United States was also engaged concurrently in these events in order not to be excluded from the increasing trend of Asian regionalism. The U.S. had conducted large-scale military exercises with allies in the region for the purpose of displaying its military might and sought to use the power of its protection to consolidate its allies’ support.
But Japanese who did not condone U.S. strategic deployment in Asia insisted on American withdrawal from its long-established military bases, at least in Okinawa. In a frustrated and impatient response to increasing community distaste for the occupation, a senior American official in March this year made disparaging remarks about Okinawa residents “blackmailing” America, assertions that cost him his job. His claims that Okinawans were unable to even grow bitter gourd well and that they just wanted more money from America to sign on for an extention of military base presence severely damaged their self respect and cast a new shadow over the bilateral relationship which had been improving under prime minister Kan Naoto.
It was at this general low point in the Northeast Asia region that the sudden and unprecedented earthquake may have brought about something of a turning point. The Chinese rescue team was the first international aid group to arrive in the disaster zone and supportive messages from Premier Wen Jiabao and President Hu Jintao to the Japanese prime minister and emperor respectively were widely reported in detail in Japan’s media. In addition, after providing 30 million yuan in humanitarian aid, China donated another 10 thousand tons of gasoline and ten thousand tons of diesel oil. South Korea donated strategic materials like boric acid and natural gas as well as delivering supportive diplomatic messages. Korean movie stars popular in Japan, like Bae Yong Joon and Choi Ji-woo,made generous donations to disaster funds. The Seoul News even printed in Japanese on its front page a headline expressing deep condolence to the victims.
The U.S. spared no efforts in supporting Japan’s rescue, relief and recovery work, sending five destroyers and one cruiser to Fukushima to help its Self Defense Force (SDF) undertake rescue work. Russian president Dmitry Medvedev said his country was ready to provide all kinds of necessary aid and his foreign minister Sergei Lavrov pledged similar support to Japan’s new foreign minister Matsumoto Takeaki in Paris. The North Korean Red Cross also sent a condolence message to Japan.
While this earthquake diplomacy has helped to break open the stalemate in the region, Northeast Asia still faces serious challenges. The U.S. aid was provided through American warships, aircraft carriers and transport planes in cooperation with the SDF. In other words, the joint relief work between the two militaries was a continuation of Japan-U.S. strategic cooperation, or, in a sense, additional military exercises and another opportunity for military cooperation. Also, the American media took the opportunity to cast a slight against China by questioning its capacity to withstand earthquakes, unfavorably comparing the estimated 70,000 death toll of the Wenchuan ‘quake in 2008 to Japan’s disaster and its fewer casualties. The media asserted that the Chinese government was not being responsible enough with its people’s welfare, despite China being quite rich.
South Korea actively provided Japan with aid, but its Astronomy and Space Science Institute (KASSI) declared later that the disputed Dokdo Islands (known in Japan as Takeshima) had shifted two more meters away from Japan’s main islands. Uncomfortable with the political point of the declaration, Japan subsequently reiterated its claim to Takeshima as its own territory, thus irking the South Koreans. Russia played a positive role in assisting Japan’s relief efforts, but the two foreign ministers in Paris also pressed their respective claims over territorial issues. The Japanese foreign ministry is seeking new ways to improve China-Japan ties, and the earthquake does provide new opportunities for better relations between the two peoples. But, the concept of China being a threat has not vanished. When prime minister Kan Naoto ordered the SDF to deploy 100,000 troops for relief work, officials in the defense ministry complained that one of its prime roles is to monitor the Chinese navy which was not possible if such a large contingent was doing relief work. And when the Japanese foreign minister met with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, he expressed concern about North Korea’s uranium enriching activities.
Although a natural disaster, the tragic earthquake and resulting tsunami could provide rare and uniting opportunities for the region beyond the outpouring of compassion and empathy. It is a real challenge indeed.
China, Japan, the United States, South Korea, North Korea and Russia could all continue to co-exist on the fringes of confrontation, or alternatively collaborate to face the current crises, jointly explore post-quake recovery, build up security mechanisms and together address the challenges of global issues.
This could be the biggest outcome of the earthquake, a rare opportunity that nature has given to Northeast Asia nations to build up mutual trust.
Lian Degui is deputy director of the Center for Japanese Studies at the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies