The days after

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 29 March, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 29 March, 2011, 12:00am

At night, Tokyo's famed Ginza retail and nightlife quarter still looks like an abandoned film set; blackouts and a lack of clientele conspire to extinguish its blare and shimmer. By day, however, signs of life are emerging just over a fortnight since the March 11 earthquake plunged Japan into its worst post-war crisis. On Sunday morning, shoppers came out from metro stations across the district, like rabbits surfacing from burrows to sniff the air after danger has passed.

They are a reminder that, slowly but surely, the world's third-largest economy is getting back on its feet. Assuming - with a healthy dose of caution - that the situation at the Fukushima nuclear plant is somehow stabilised within weeks, it is worth considering the strategic and economic impact of the disaster.

For a nation often described in terms of perpetual malaise, the crisis has put Japan's higher virtues on display to the world - the calm and stoic nature of its people along with their resourcefulness, organisation and discipline.

Their government, too, has responded in a robust, ordered and relatively transparent fashion, despite ongoing troubles and question marks. Grave concerns about the management of Fukushima by the Tokyo power monopoly, Tepco, both long before and during the reactor trouble are rightly being voiced, but it is hard to lay that all at the government's door.

The bottom line is that it is difficult to imagine any nation, of whatever stripe, performing better given the tragic troika of events that unfolded on March 11. Certainly neither Britain nor the US have covered themselves in glory during recent calamities on a smaller scale, such as the European snowstorms or the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. And a scenario involving a partial meltdown of reactors at a Chinese nuclear plant does not bear thinking about in terms of transparency.

With many key factories still shut or damaged, rolling blackouts predicted until at least May and tourism obviously hit, the short-term outlook is mixed. But government, World Bank and private-sector analyses all point to a recovery in the third quarter.

While government estimates of up to US$305 billion for the cost of the crisis make it by far the most expensive natural disaster in history (the last being the US$100 billion Kobe quake in 1995), reconstruction is expected to help boost the economy.

Strategically, there are clear opportunities. The crisis has bolstered Japan's engagement with the region, including China, and built a reservoir of goodwill. Any prolonged fallout from Fukushima will demand this be managed carefully, amid wider fears over the environment and food security. While the crisis saw unprecedented offers of help to Japan's military from the Chinese defence ministry, both sides will need to work hard and manoeuvre delicately to dent mutual strategic suspicions in the longer term.

For all the goodwill and gushy coverage in China, it is hard to be too optimistic. Amid the crisis coverage in yesterday's Tokyo dailies, for example, were reports raising concerns about a Chinese State Oceanic Administration helicopter hovering near a Japanese vessel in the East China Sea.

Other strategic factors will also be scrutinised in Beijing. Firstly, more than 100,000 staff and reservists of Japan's Self-Defence Forces were swiftly dispatched for relief efforts, winning considerable local praise - the biggest call-up of troops since the second world war. It is a far cry from Kobe in 1995 when then prime minister Tomiichi Murayama, from the Social Democratic Party, was wary of calling in the military, reflecting habitual reticence towards the armed forces in public life.

Then there is the ongoing effort by the US military, comprising 20 ships and tens of thousands of personnel, involved in Fukushima and more conventional relief activities further north. Officials on both sides are hailing the effort as a way to boost trust and inter-operability - a push already under way before the crisis. Strategically, the response to the crisis highlights several key shifts - and not all of them in Beijing's favour.

Greg Torode is the Post's chief Asia correspondent