[Viewpoint] Japan quake fallout goes global

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[Viewpoint] Japan quake fallout goes global

Japan’s domestic nuclear crisis is going global in a hurry.

Just ask Christine Lagarde, France’s finance minister, who wants to convene Group of Seven talks on a response to Japan’s earthquake. “I’ve asked for a G-7 meeting at the level of finance ministers and central bankers to see how we can purchase their bonds and how to respond on the financial level,” she said.

The internationalization of this crisis is even more obvious in the openness with which Japan is responding by welcoming foreign assistance. It’s a phenomenon that may bring Asia closer together, to the economic benefit of billions.

For much of the world, it’s a no-brainer in times of chaos and human tragedy. We’re reeling, you have expertise that we need, please by all means rush here and help us. You saw this dynamic in New Zealand last month, Haiti and Chile in 2010, Indonesia in 2007 and many parts of Asia in 2004.

Yet in 1995, Japan was having none of it. On a crisp January morning, a 7.3 magnitude earthquake, that would eventually kill 6,400 people, devastated western Japan. Offers of help poured in, the vast majority of them rebuffed by the then-ruling Liberal Democratic Party.

Swiss rescue teams did manage to arrive at Kansai International Airport with a group of rescue dogs, which Japan held in quarantine for days while survivors who might have lived succumbed to their injuries. Then there were government bureaucrats who wanted to powwow with the international emergency staff instead of letting them get to work in devastated areas.

Today the situation is markedly different and it’s not just the magnitude. With the LDP gone and the Democratic Party of Japan in charge, the nation is not only open for business, but outside help too. Aid and offers of assistance are rolling in fast and furiously from Washington to Canberra. It’s being accepted with open arms and being solicited without reservation.

On March 15, Prime Minister Naoto Kan appealed for international help and asked the United Nations atomic agency to provide “expert missions” to help stabilize the nuclear reactors. Immigration-wary Japan is approaching this crisis with a sense of openness that’s both extraordinary and a sign of hope for its dealings in the world’s most vibrant economic region.

A concerned world is responding with similar selflessness. And not just governments but companies that compete with Japanese counterparts. “Japan is a close neighbor before it is a rival. We will do whatever we can to help Japan’s recovery from the quake.” Says Samsung Electronics Vice Chairman Choi Gee-sung

South Korea really is Exhibit A. Aside from considering a government financial-aid package, Korea plans to transfer its boric acid reserves to Japan to stabilize quake-damaged nuclear reactors. The idea of Japan accepting such a gesture in 1995 would be unthinkable. This time Korean actor Bae Yong-joon, a superstar in Japan, donated 1 billion won ($884,000) to the nation’s earthquake-relief fund.

The U.S. military has arrived in the region, this time without the bureaucratic delay of 16 years ago, as have rescue dogs who also have not faced the same treatment as 16 years ago. The U.S. Agency for International Development sent 150 search-and-rescue personnel with dogs that can find people or bodies in rubble. The U.K., Australia and Korea have done the same. Mongolia is also sending rescue teams to Japan’s devastated Tohoku region.

China too is an important part of this story. It has long been the case that the leaders of China, Japan and Korea could barely speak to one another. We in the media get excited when any of them chat for even 20 minutes, no matter how superficially. Here is an example of the Chinese stepping forward to help its long-time nemesis in a time of crisis which also serves as a sign that China is maturing.

Pundits have long called on China, now the second-biggest economy in the world, to be less of a global shareholder and more of a stakeholder. China is a global leader and must accept the responsibility that comes with that status. The world needs China to be a constructive and nuanced steward of an international system that has lost its way.

And they seem to be rising to these expectations as news surfaces that they have suspended approval of new nuclear projects and will conduct safety inspections of all plants under construction following the radiation leaks in Japan. And really, are nations along the so-called Ring of Fire, an arc of volcanoes and seismic fault lines around the Pacific Basin, appropriate homes for nuclear reactors?

Yet the considerably more open response to the world’s offers of aid shows not only that Japan has learned from past mistakes but also that it’s looking outward. China and Korea are doing the same.

One never wants to make light of the immense toll of Japan’s earthquake in lives and human suffering. Here is a sign, though, that out of a huge tragedy may come a closer, more coherent Asia.

*The writer is a Bloomberg News columnist.

By William Pesek
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