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Japanese Disaster Provides a Path for Asian Rapprochement

The Japanese natural disasters helped bring China, South Korea and Japan together, but the split over North Korea remains.
By Amiel Ungar
First Publish: 5/22/2011, 9:47 PM / Last Update: 5/23/2011, 8:02 AM

Sometimes natural disasters can help facilitate a rapprochement. Mass tragedy can evoke human sympathy, even amongst rivals, and and a rival smitten by disaster appears less threatening. The Chinese News Agency Xinhua, that habitually keeps the bitter memories of the Japanese occupation alive, was struck by the disaster as it accompanied  Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao on his visit to the stricken port of  Yuriage.

Boats lie hundreds of meters away from the sea; sedans and trucks crashed or buried in the mud; wooden and metal materials and furniture for homes, shops or any other vulnerable buildings scattered around, leaving some concrete schools and hospitals stand, lonely.

Against the backdrop of Japan's disasters , Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak convened for a summit in Tokyo. Both China and South Korea promised aid to the stricken regions and the leaders paid their respects to the victims.

The countries got down to the issue of nuclear safety and security and, as opposed to the reaction in Germany the trio remains committed to nuclear energy with proper safeguards and reporting.

Another positive development emerging from the meeting was the planned trilateral free-trade agreement, pending the conclusion of studies by officials, academics and corporate representatives. The Chinese premier supports launching negotiations next year, although he will then be retiring from office.

The leaders also were prepared to cooperate in the fight against terrorism and the common threats of piracy off the coast of Somalia, a mutual interest of the 3 countries, as they all are dependent on oil shipments that pass near the troubled area.

As in the economic dialogue with the United States, one could discern that the Chinese were making an effort at reconciliation, having seen Japan and South Korea draw closer due to disappointments with China's failure to rein in North Korea. China made a concession on this issue by agreeing that North Korea should make gestures of goodwill before the 6 nation talks on resolving the nuclear crisis could resume.

But what does China intend to do when North Korea refuses to be conciliatory and stages further provocations? The Chinese response is that the six nation talks are the only game in town or as the Chinese premier told a joint news conference. "We're convinced that only dialogue and consultations are the ultimate way forward for resolving the peninsula's problems."

The divide between China, on the one hand, and Japan and South Korea on the other, were emphasized when during the talks it became known that North Korean leader Kim Jung Il was traveling through China for the third time this year. The likely purpose of the visit was to solicit more Chinese aid and to spur the development of border towns along the Yalu River. The cover story was that the North Korean leader was going to study Chinese economic development methods. This at least was what Wen relayed to South Korean president Lee.

It is doubtful that Lee bought the idea that Kim was about to dismantle his Stalinist system for the hybrid system of economic capitalism with one party political control. The exchange showed that disaster diplomacy has its limits.