Fukushima spirit

Print edition : June 17, 2011

Civil nuclear safety overshadows other major issues at the Tokyo summit on May 22.

in Singapore

Ahead of the China, Japan, South Korea summit on May 22, leaders of the three countries (from left) Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan and South Korean President-TORU HANAI/AFP

THE Tokyo accord on civil nuclear safety could not have come at a better time because of the continuing nuclear radiation crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi power station in Japan. Surely, there was nothing dramatic about the leaders of China, Japan and South Korea agreeing, at their summit in Tokyo on May 22, to uphold the safety first principle in harnessing atoms for peace. However, the summit host, Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan, and his dialogue partners, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, decided to translate the principle into practice in a concerted and transparent fashion.

The three East Asian powers had in fact set up in 2008 a trilateral forum known as the Top Regulators' Meeting on Nuclear Safety. So, it was now left to Wen, Kan and Lee to take the existing mechanism forward as a practical and tangible framework of cooperation to ensure absolute safety in operating nuclear power stations.

More importantly, agreement was reached now on three new aspects of civil nuclear safety. On two of these interrelated issues, it was decided that China, Japan and South Korea would set up frameworks for the early notification to each other about a civil nuclear accident and for real-time forecast of airflow trajectory in any such situation. The forecast of airflow direction is relevant to the possible spread of radioactive substances across national borders in the event of an accident at a nuclear facility in any country.

More relevant to the latest trilateral summit in Tokyo was the sense of dismay, if not also outrage, in both China and South Korea that they were not, in the first place, duly warned about the gravity of the current nuclear radiation crisis in Japan. Of particular concern to China and South Korea was a piece of Japanese action before the May 22 summit which permitted the Fukushima Daiichi plant operator, the Tokyo Electric Power Company, to release radioactive substances, classified as being a low-grade risk with no immediate adverse environmental impact, into the Pacific Ocean in the general neighbourhood of all these three countries.

As China and South Korea felt they were not informed of this in advance, Japan said the norms of relevant international practice, including those under the Law of the Sea, had been followed. At the same time, Japan undertook to improve its record of transparency and take into confidence key neighbours such as China and South Korea in the future. Such a pre-summit note of unease in China and South Korea about Japan's nuclear-crisis management lent a sense of urgency to their trilateral agreement on transparency in notifying any nuclear accident that might occur on their territories.

The third aspect of the newly agreed cooperation among China, Japan and South Korea in the atomic energy domain was their willingness to study natural disasters as a normative cause of nuclear accidents and take suitable follow-up precautions. In fact, the heightened sense of urgency about total nuclear safety was triggered by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, which completely wrecked the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station in eastern Japan. Such a new focus on natural disasters transcended the raging controversies about the relative role of human acts of omission and commission in the tragedy at the Daiichi plant.

In a sense, the Daiichi plant had, since March 11, turned into the epicentre of the world's worst civil nuclear disaster since the Chernobyl accident of 1986. As a result, and as of May 22, as many as 60 countries had varying degrees of restrictions on the import of Japanese farm produce and dairy as also food products from Japan as a whole or from its prefectures considered to have been affected by the nuclear disaster. Unsurprisingly, therefore, the summit in Tokyo was dominated by food-and-dinner diplomacy of an unusual kind.

Wen and Lee first toured, independently, some places in Japan that were devastated beyond imagination in the temblor of magnitude 9. After paying homage to the victims and encouraging the local authorities, the two leaders travelled to a gymnasium-turned-evacuation centre in Fukushima city on May 21. Hosted by Kan there, the leaders of China and Japan presented gifts to children and comforted the adults who had to abandon their homes in the vicinity of the radiation-spewing Daiichi plant for an indefinite period.

FOOD-AND-DINNER DIPLOMACY

The evacuation centre, about 60 km from the stricken nuclear power plant, was also the scene of a diplomatic cameo of good neighbourly confidence in Japan's efforts to ensure or enhance the safety of farm produce and food products from the radiation-hit areas. In a show of solidarity with the Japanese people, Wen and Lee heartily accepted and ate a few home-grown cherries offered by Kan. At the official pre-summit dinner in Tokyo, later on the same day, Kan served his guests some food items containing ingredients from the Fukushima prefecture, obviously from the areas outside the evacuation zones around the Daiichi plant. Commenting on such and food-and-dinner diplomacy, Wen later emphasised that it was his voluntary decision to travel to Fukushima city and sympathise with the victims of the nuclear crisis.

From the perspective of Japan, which hosted in Fukuoka the first in the present summit series involving China and South Korea as well, the latest meeting was actually infused with what could be seen as the Fukushima spirit.

In this perspective, it has been a gradual progression from the Fukuoka consensus to the Fukushima spirit. The basic consensus at the Fukuoka summit in 2008 was an accord that China, Japan and South Korea must collectively engage each other regularly as neighbouring countries with growing importance to East Asia and the wider world. As a sequel to that consensus, the picture-perfect bonhomie in evidence at Fukushima this time is a crisis-time reaffirmation of the original Fukuoka consensus.

Such a romanticised, feel-good, sense of diplomacy in East Asia does not, of course, erase the many challenges in the evolving new equations among China, Japan and South Korea. For obvious reasons, civil nuclear safety overshadowed the other major issues at the Tokyo summit. And, Lee said he would now place civil nuclear safety on the agenda of the global nuclear security summit that South Korea would be hosting in due course. The distinction between safety and security in this context is familiar to those conversant with nuclear issues.

During the Cold War and until recently, global affairs, more particularly geopolitics, were widely believed to have been decisively influecned by the Washington Consensus, which gives primacy to America's ideas and strategies if not also its political and social values. And, for some time now, pundits have been forecasting the gradual emergence of a Beijing consensus' about the possible primacy of China's ideas and strategies, if not also its political and social values.

A clash between, or perhaps an interplay of, the Washington Consensus and the evolving Beijing consensus may well be moderated by the gradual process of incremental engagement among China, Japan and South Korea. It is here that the perceptions of Fukuoka consensus and Fukushima spirit can be relevant.

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