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Opportunity in crisis: Sino-Japanese relations after the earthquake

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In Brief

The current disaster in Japan has provided an opportunity for Japan and China to further invest in their mutual international cooperation outside the security sphere such as the Six-Party Talks. It has done this in at least three ways.

First, China’s quick response in the wake of Japan’s largest recorded earthquake, tsunami and nuclear reactor crisis has demonstrated again that China and Japan can work together effectively and for their mutual benefit.


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This is in-line with their post 1970 normalisation relationship in which they have, for the most part, effectively separated politics and economics, known as Seikei Bunri in Japanese, allowing for continued economic development between the two states.

Following the onset of the recent crisis, China immediately offered 20,000 tons of fuel and supplies as well as expert advice. Importantly, this generosity has not been limited to the state, but also local and provincial municipalities, individual citizens and China’s Red Cross. This reciprocation of generosity is illustrative of the will, capacity and crucial ability to cooperate despite tensions in other aspects of the relationship.

Second, and perhaps equally important, are the Chinese rescuers on the ground, saving or involved in saving the lives of Japanese victims. From a public diplomacy point of view, the image of a your ‘competitor’ helping ordinary Japanese people in such a dire situation is a powerful image that can only create better will between the two countries.

Third, there is no doubt China’s aid is much appreciated by the Japanese government and people but there is another very important side of this story. For China, watching how the ordinary Japanese citizen and local governments have responded to this unprecedented disaster has been not only an exceptional demonstration of Japan’s disaster preparation, but also a salient demonstration of Japan’s exceptional ability to remain an orderly society even in the most desperate of situations. There has been no reported crime or looting, no mass panic and none of the chaos that we have seen in disasters such as Hurricane Katrina in the US.

Once the immediate crisis has passed and the rescuers have returned home, I suspect there will be more cooperation in the area of disaster preparedness. This will no doubt include a focus on the behaviour of ordinary Japanese citizens and what lessons can be applied in China.

All in all, the horrible earthquake and tsunami that took place on 11 March 2011 have provided opportunities and new lines of communication between Japan and China. These lines contribute to building trust between the two neighbours at the level of the state, local government and ordinary citizen that might do much to dampen nationalistic tensions and increase the collective sense that these two Asian giants are neighbours that not only can benefit from each other but are two giants that need each other.

Stephen Robert Nagy is an Assistant Professor of Japanese Studies at The Chinese University of Hong Kong and Senior Fellow at Waseda University’s Global Institute for Asian Regional Integration (GIARI).

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