Friend in need

Print edition : May 06, 2011

Japan: France seems to have stolen a march over the U.S. in terms of trying to pull the country out of its civil nuclear crisis.

in Singapore

French President Nicolas Sarkozy (left) with Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan in Tokyo on March 31 during his solidarity visit to the quake-hit nation.-ERIC FEFERBERG/AFP

A FRIEND in need is a friend indeed. Such a sentiment was conveyed to France by Japan's leaders in the context of their efforts to control the nuclear radiation crisis that has shown no sign of easing even one month after the massive temblor and tsunami that laid parts of the country to waste and ravaged the Fukushima Daiichi atomic energy plant on March 11.

The relevant issue, as of April 11, was not whether the Japanese leaders had voiced such a sentiment in an outpouring of sudden emotions or on the basis of cool logic. French President Nicolas Sarkozy visited Tokyo in early April in a symbolic gesture of empathy towards the Japanese people and offered to help them overcome the civil nuclear crisis. Gaining currency in that context was the expectation that France might be able to deploy its specialised robots at the radiation-blanketed Fukushima Daiichi plant.

In a sense, the surprise question in such a situation, and perhaps into the future, is whether France has stolen a march over the United States, perhaps in terms of public diplomacy, in trying to pull Japan out of its civil nuclear emergency. The answer from the U.S. is an emphatic no. Washington does not also see the issue of being Tokyo's friendliest friend in a situation of utmost need as one of competition with Paris. After all, the U.S. prides itself on being Japan's closest ally from a point in time after their hostilities and hard feelings of the Second World War episode ended.

Responding to a question from this correspondent on the American-Japanese interactions during the civil nuclear emergency, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell said on April 6: This is an unbelievable crisis. And, [for] countries, when faced with this kind of shock, it takes a little bit of time to establish the necessary procedures, the kinds of emergency groups [required]. Japan has done a very able job in establishing a crisis-management team and has brought to bear enormous capacities inside the government technical [squads], self-defence forces and others to deal with this unprecedented set of challenges. . The United States has sought to provide every possible [form of] assistance. We frankly have chosen not to visit [Japan] at this time [unlike Sarkozy of France] for fear that [a high-level American visit] will take [the focus] away from the urgent tasks. In any case, the U.S. has set up a round-the-clock crisis centre.

On what the U.S. really did immediately after Japan declared a civil nuclear emergency, Campbell said: What we have seen is the provision of both enormous amounts of humanitarian equipment and supplies [and] a variety of protective gear and clothing. We have [U.S.] nuclear experts who are providing advice on a 24-hour basis on almost every aspect of the crisis not only how to seal [radiation] leaks but how to think about longer-term protocols to ease the crisis and get the reactors into as safe [a mode as] they can be managed in a more regularised process. The [U.S.-Japan] cooperation has been smooth.

In particular, he said, The U.S. military and USAID [United States Agency for International Development] officials have been deeply engaged in every area of the crisis. His punchline was that the Japanese government has done a remarkable job [and] U.S.-Japan relationship has demonstrated its worth both to the government and to the Japanese people.

A boy is screened at an evacuation centre in Fukushima for leaked radiation from the damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, on March 24.-KYODO NEWS/AP

However, Campbell did not directly say whether Japan was in fact slow or lukewarm in seeking America's expertise or in accepting Washington's apparent offer of instantaneous help. Even as Japan's civil nuclear emergency intensified by the day, or even by the hour, diplomats and opinion leaders in East Asia were trying to figure out whether Tokyo was sufficiently in sync with Washington to tap its real or presumed expertise.

Discernible to those who care, beyond such mundane diplomatic niceties, is an interesting puzzle, but not an empirically demonstrated one, about the real place of the U.S. in the Japanese psyche, especially on a hypersensitive issue such as nuclear radiation. Every schoolchild knows that the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were pulverised by U.S. nuclear weapons towards the end of the Second World War. It is equally true that the U.S. later made historic amends to a point that has made it possible for post-imperial Japan to breathe comfortably under the American nuclear umbrella, now as indeed during the just-bygone Cold War era.

On balance, diplomatic equations, such as the one between Tokyo and Washington now, do not always mirror popular sentiments. And this is true of the relationship between any two countries, not just Japan and the U.S. Within such a political caveat too, it is possible that the Japanese national psyche has had something to do with official Japan's perceived slowness, if not hesitation, in seeking America's help instantaneously as the civil nuclear emergency broke out.

A significant political straw in the wind, if not a definitive political proof, in this climate of mixed feelings or simple weariness in Japan is the success of Tokyo Governor Ishihara in the gubernatorial elections held on April 10. Ishihara is known for having espoused unorthodox views that struck a chord among the independent-minded Japanese with reference to such official doctrines as the importance of the U.S. to Japan and the necessity of civil nuclear energy in Japan's economic circumstances.

In a wider sense, the latest Japanese local elections were not reflective of the superiority of one view over the other or even the domination of the heart over the mind in a crisis like the present one. It is, therefore, this aspect that keeps the U.S. firmly on the Japanese scene as official Tokyo seeks to ride out the civil nuclear crisis.

China factor

In the larger spectrum of East Asian affairs, the U.S.-Japan ties, even during this crisis, cannot be entirely divorced from Washington's interactions with Beijing. On whether the likely admission of the U.S. into the East Asia Summit later this year will be seen as a step aimed at checkmating the rise of China, Campbell said: One of the first countries to welcome publicly the U.S.' entrance into the East Asia Summit was China. We have had a series of interactions with the Chinese about how to think about working together in the East Asia Summit. What the U.S. understands very clearly is that every country in Asia wants better relationship with China and that the best way for the U.S. to engage in the region is to support that effort. We appreciate that the balance of history of the 21st century will be written in the Asia Pacific region. And the U.S. understands that its interest lies squarely in this region. We will not neglect our interests and we will continue to be engaged in a very purposeful way diplomatically, strategically, militarily, commercially, economically, across the board.

A FARMER DUMPS milk in a trench made on his farm in Kawamata, north-eastern Japan. Two hundred tonnes of milk produced in the nuclear zone of Fukushima is wasted every day, Kyodo News reports.-AP

As part of conveying this double-toned message to China, the U.S. went ahead with its sophisticated naval exercises, in the Malabar series, with India, not far off the Japanese waters in April. Answering a related question from this correspondent, Campbell said: I am struck by the enthusiasm with which [America's] Indian friends are seeking to cooperate not just with the U.S. but other countries in the Asia-Pacific region [such as Japan]. We all understood why Japan was unable to participate [in the Malabar exercise this time], given the pressing challenges that Self-Defence Forces are involved in, with the earthquake and the nuclear operations.

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