19 August 2019
At least 17 people were killed in the 6.0-magnitude earthquake that struck the eastern Taiwanese city of Hualien on Feb. 6.  Photo: Reuters
At least 17 people were killed in the 6.0-magnitude earthquake that struck the eastern Taiwanese city of Hualien on Feb. 6. Photo: Reuters

A glimpse into Japan’s ‘earthquake diplomacy’

A 6.0-magnitude earthquake that struck the eastern Taiwanese city of Hualien and killed 17 people in early February, has sparked heated diplomatic disputes between Beijing and Taipei as well as between Beijing and Tokyo.

Almost immediately after the earthquake, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe reportedly sent a message of condolences to Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen, and then posted a picture of him holding a piece of Chinese calligraphy that reads “Hang in there, Taiwan!” on his Facebook account.

Abe’s high-profile support for the quake victims in Hualien drew fire from Beijing, which strongly criticized him for “politicizing the relief effort”, violating the “One China principle”, and deliberately seizing the opportunity to pitch “One China and One Taiwan”.

While Abe’s public expression of sympathy for the quake victims in Taiwan might really have had a diplomatic agenda to serve as Beijing has alleged, the truth is that it wasn’t the first time Tokyo actively responded to earthquakes that took place in other parts of the world. Japan has a long tradition of engaging in “earthquake diplomacy”.

One typical example of Japan’s “earthquake diplomacy” was its substantial contribution to the relief efforts in the aftermath of the 6.3-magnitude earthquake that hit the city of Christchurch in New Zealand in 2011 and the even more deadly 7.8-magnitude quake that devastated the country’s south island in 2016.

For a small country like New Zealand which has a population of less than 4 million, the two quakes were simply like Armageddon, and its government has been struggling to rebuild the destroyed areas.

However, to the Japanese people, who have been living with earthquakes since ancient times, the New Zealand disasters were something they were all too familiar with.

From the painful lessons of past tragedies, including the 1995 Kobe temblor that killed more than 6,000 people, Japan has developed state-of-the-art technologies to lessen the damage of earthquakes.

The Japanese government has been working aggressively to perfect its expertise in building earthquake-resistant structures in order to protect the lives of its own people.

It also hopes to promote its international image as a “responsible power” and win global recognition by exporting such advanced technologies to other countries that are also susceptible to earthquakes, particularly island nations in the Asia-Pacific region such as the Philippines, New Zealand, Taiwan and Indonesia.

Shortly after the 2011 earthquake in Christchurch, Japan sent a 60-member team to the city to join in the rescue and relief efforts, while Taiwan also deployed 24 rescue experts to help.

Along with those from Australia, Britain, the United States and Singapore, a 600-strong international coalition played a key part in the relief efforts in Christchurch.

Since then, Japan, New Zealand and Taiwan have enhanced their multilateral cooperation in the study and development of quake-proof technologies.

In 2014, Tokyo, Taipei and Wellington stepped up their partnership and established a “joint harm assessment committee” responsible for studying the geographical conditions of the three places and comparing their quake patterns in order to come up with ways to improve their monitoring and early warning systems against earthquakes.

In Christchurch, progress in rebuilding the devastated city had been slow, not least because of conflicting priorities among different stakeholders and a lack of experience among local officials in handling post-quake reconstruction.

As such, expertise and advice from Japan and Taiwan, both of which have a lot of experience in dealing with earthquakes, proved invaluable to the local authorities.

The eagerness of Japan, Taiwan and New Zealand to work together in developing and perfecting quake-proof technologies is not necessarily politically motivated.

It was more likely driven by the “island complex” and geopolitical sense of shared destiny among the three.

Unfortunately, from Beijing’s point of view, Taipei’s joint effort with other countries in developing quake-resistant technologies is meant to advance its secret agenda of gaining statehood and recognition as a maritime power.

Yet the Chinese government’s overreaction and intimidating rhetoric could backfire and work against its own long-standing strategy of winning the hearts and minds of the Taiwanese people.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Feb 22

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

– Contact us at [email protected]


Associate professor and director of Global Studies Programme, Faculty of Social Science, at the Chinese University of Hong Kong; Lead Writer (Global) at the Hong Kong Economic Journal

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