Thursday, November 27, 2014
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Squaring Asia’s Nuclear Triangle

TOKYO – Just before the fourth trilateral summit between Japan, China, and South Korea began on May 21, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, and Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan jointly visited the areas affected by the Great East Japan Earthquake, offering encouragement to the disaster’s victims living in evacuation centers. Since the accident at Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in March, Kan has aimed at lifting the bans that many countries have imposed on imports of Japanese agricultural products, and so offered the two heads of state cherries from Fukushima in a bid to highlight their safety.

At the summit, the three countries issued a joint statement outlining cooperation on a wide range of issues, including nuclear safety, disaster prevention, economic growth, and the environment. The lessons learned from Japan’s earthquake and nuclear accident would be shared with China, South Korea, and the wider international community, and, in an addendum, the Japanese authorities promised to “continue to provide information…with the greatest transparency possible.”

In fact, the Kan administration – which loathes the involvement of bureaucrats, who are professionals, in managing public affairs – delayed notifying neighboring countries when it was forced to order the release of water containing low concentrations of radioactive material. For Kan, the real priority was his government’s effort to maintain its grip on power, not reassuring Japan’s neighbors of the actions it was taking to contain a potential threat to their citizens.

The codicil to the summit communiqué was created to address these concerns. It emphasized the importance of sharing information about nuclear safety, and incorporated specific measures, including the creation of a framework for rapid notification in the event of an emergency and exchanges of experts to assist in managing future nuclear crises and ensuring that regional concerns are taken into account.

Ever since the Fukushima accident, opposition to nuclear power has been growing in China and South Korea, both of which had been planning a massive expansion of their nuclear generating capacity – and both of which face a change of political leadership next year. China’s succession, though set, will nonetheless bring a period of uncertainty, while South Korea will undoubtedly face its usual no-holds-barred democratic battle in its coming presidential election. Given these political realities, keeping ordinary citizens content about civilian nuclear power has become a greater priority than usual in both countries.

This confluence of political need has created an opportunity for all three countries to cooperate more closely in the management of civilian nuclear power, and this opportunity should not be missed. Sensing this, China and South Korea have provided humanitarian and economic aid to areas affected by the earthquake, and both countries were quick to send specialized teams to Japan to search for the missing.

The first country to send a rescue team to Japan, however, was Taiwan (which also was the largest single provider of donations, amounting to ¥20 billion). But, owing to what Kan’s government called “confusion on the ground,” Taiwan’s rescue team was kept waiting for days. And, while the people of Japan were grateful for Taiwan’s unexpected generosity, the Japanese government failed to offer any thanks, despite running advertisements in major newspapers expressing gratitude for the relief sent from other countries. (Eventually, a public campaign raised the money to run an advertisement in a Taiwanese newspaper.)

Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou was as surprised as the Japanese by the size of the contributions made by his people. Ma had been tilting his government’s policies increasingly toward China, concluding a bilateral framework agreement on economic cooperation. But, in the wake of Taiwanese society’s outpouring of sympathy for Japan, he has adjusted his stance.

The Ma government has also been kept on its toes by the opposition Democratic Progressive Party’s call for the phase-out of nuclear power in Taiwan by 2025. Taiwan has three nuclear power plants, and, like the plant at Fukushima, they directly face the ocean. Two are located within 20 kilometers of the capital, Taipei, and it is generally agreed that there would be no escape for the vast majority of the capital’s citizens should a major nuclear accident occur.

Construction of a fourth nuclear power plant, which began in 1999, was suspended by DPP President Chen Shui-bian the following year. Although Chen’s government, under pressure from the opposition Kuomintang, later restarted work on the plant, design revisions have repeatedly delayed its completion. Opposition from local residents remains stiff.

At their recent trilateral summit, Japan, China, and South Korea skillfully evaded direct mention of the delicately poised security issues that they face. And, while they did bring nuclear safety to the fore and agreed to cooperate and share information with each other, efforts to meet this region-wide challenge cannot succeed without bringing Taiwan into the discussions.

Taiwan should also be allowed to participate in the International Atomic Energy Agency in the area of nuclear safety, just as it became an observer at the World Health Organization during the SARS and avian flu pandemics of the 1990’s. Where nuclear safety is concerned, China must rethink its policy of isolating Taiwan from international bodies.

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