Disaster diplomacy a welcome ice-breaker

PUBLISHED : Friday, 30 May, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 30 May, 2008, 12:00am

Natural disasters sometimes bring out the best in people. The same can apply to nations. The tensions, and sometimes outright hostilities, between Japan and China seem to have suddenly evaporated in recent weeks. Now, the two countries are co-ordinating relief efforts for Sichuan earthquake victims that may even involve deploying Japanese military aircraft to fly in aid materials.

Call it disaster diplomacy. The quake-hit province also happened to be one of the most extensively bombed Chinese areas during the Japanese invasion during the second world war. So both countries are acutely aware of the sensitivities surrounding the aid mission being planned. The earthquake has brought an outpouring of international goodwill, with worldwide offers of aid. Angry protests against China during the Olympic torch relay have died down.

The warming of relations was already under way after Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda replaced his nationalist predecessor Shinzo Abe. Premier Wen Jiabao showed off his baseball skills during a state visit to Japan last year. This month, President Hu Jintao displayed his table tennis prowess on another visit. Suddenly, Japanese were intrigued by the new warmth of China's top leaders, whom they usually thought of as being wooden, with a penchant for lecturing them about their elders' wartime atrocities. The earthquake has helped accelerate this process of becoming more friendly. Relief specialists from Japan were among the first foreign aid workers accepted by China days after disaster struck. Myanmar may have divided countries over how best to force the junta to accept foreign aid. China's quake, however, has drawn nations closer, especially those in Asia. South Korea's new president Lee Myung-bak has extended his trip to China to visit disaster zones in Sichuan today.

This is not the first time a disaster has brought about changes for the better. The devastation of Aceh after the 2004 tsunami, for example, led to a political breakthrough resulting in an end to hostilities and partial autonomy for the Indonesian province. Let us hope this round of improved relations will last.