Much to learn from Japan's disaster on nuclear programme

PUBLISHED : Monday, 14 March, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 14 March, 2011, 12:00am

Facing natural disasters, China and Japan endure misfortune together' - the headline of an article in the overseas edition of the People's Daily yesterday. China's rapid show of sympathy and offer of help in the wake of Japan's terrible earthquake and tsunami will surely help to improve bilateral relations between the rival Asian giants.

The prospect of joining hands to deal with the catastrophe will also provide a unique opportunity for the countries to set aside their long-running territorial and historical disputes and overcome narrow-minded nationalism to build mutual trust and elevate ties to a new level.

Chinese leaders reacted quickly to the disaster. Premier Wen Jiabao phoned Prime Minister Naoto Kan to offer condolences and help. A 15-member Chinese rescue team landed in Tokyo yesterday and was on the way to the disaster zone. The mainland's Red Cross has pledged 1 million yuan (HK$1.18 million). It is worth noting that Defence Minister Liang Guanglie also called his Japanese counterpart, Toshimi Kitazawa, to offer 'necessary assistance'.

Mainland media, blamed in the past for inciting anti-Japanese sentiment, have this time played up sympathy for the Japanese victims and how mainlanders are impressed by the response of the Japanese people - organised, orderly and well-trained in the face of the quake.

'I burst into tears when I saw the catastrophic scenes on TV. Japanese people are not alone while fighting against the natural disaster. Best wishes to them,' Xinhua quoted National People's Congress deputy Wang Xiaolin as saying.

The People's Daily article recalled how the Japanese government and people offered help after 2008's deadly earthquake in Sichuan .

Such sentiments are in sharp contrast to the rhetoric back in September, when bilateral ties were strained over Japan's decision to detain a Chinese trawler captain and his crew near the Diaoyu Islands.

Indeed, China's leaders could take advantage of the opportunity to provide humanitarian assistance, helping to dispel misgivings between the two peoples and bring them closer. For instance, the central government could encourage the Red Cross and other charitable groups to solicit donations from ordinary mainlanders and businesses to help Japan. This would in turn help counter the narrow-minded and inappropriate nationalism displayed in many gleeful comments posted by Chinese internet users in the first few hours after the quake.

In response to Japan's request, the United States is sending an aircraft carrier and other military ships to aid rescue efforts. God forbid, if massive evacuations of Japanese civilians are required because of a nuclear meltdown, the Chinese navy would be in a better position to send ships because of proximity. Now that General Liang has offered 'necessary assistance', would the Japanese accept the offer if the need arose?

Meanwhile, China has much to learn from Japan, and not just about its response to the disaster.

As Liu Cigui, the head of the State Oceanic Administration, told Xinhua on Saturday, the central government and local authorities should pay close, high-level attention to oceanic disasters when planning development and infrastructure in coastal regions, already the most developed and densely populated areas of the country. He has called for the setting up of an inter-departmental co-ordination mechanism for the coastal regions and the preparation of evacuation plans for disasters.

More importantly, the explosion and radiation leak at a nuclear power plant in Japan will surely fuel concerns and debate over the mainland's ambitious plan to build dozens of nuclear power plants in coastal regions and even in central provinces as part of its efforts to protect the environment.

Senior environment officials, including Xie Zhenhua and Zhang Lijun, said over the weekend that China would learn lessons from Japan's terrible experience, and that evaluation of nuclear safety and the monitoring of the plans would be strengthened.

But Zhang, a deputy environment minister, said that while China could draw lessons, its determination to develop nuclear power would not change.

Zhang's view, which most likely represents that of the central government, is not convincing.

Japan's nuclear disaster is still unfolding and nobody has yet any clue how it happened, let alone how to guard against such an event in the future. Moreover, like Japan, China is also prone to earthquakes - the latest being a deadly quake of 5.8 magnitude that struck Yunnan on Thursday last week.

It is time for China to undertake a thorough reassessment of nuclear technology, selection of sites for future power plants, and monitoring and emergency mechanisms, as well as its capability to evacuate millions of people in case of an accident.