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China and Japan coming together in nuclear power?

Updated On: Jan 26, 2007

Japan has joined the US and Australia in expressing concern over the recent anti-space satellite test by the Chinese. 

Fortunately, this incident has not stopped the ongoing Sino-Japanese rapprochement.  China and Japan certainly seems to be going one step further in confidence-building judging from the latest initiative to cooperate in nuclear power, which would have been unthinkable a year ago.

The cooperation is not entirely political. Big businesses are closely involved in this new avenue for cooperation. In what has become a template for Sino-Japanese relations, the Japanese are keenly aware of China's enormous market and China is thirsty for Japan's technologies and management knowhow. This results in a complementary partnership for mutual benefits.

The latest nuclear cooperation plan is aimed at paving the way for Japanese nuclear technology companies to participate in China's nuclear plant construction which is expected to be the biggest network of projects in the world. This is one main reason why Japan has purchased the US's largest firm in this sector, Westinghouse, in the first place.

Japan and China are in political negotiations (at bureau chief levels) to address two main concerns on the Japanese side. Japan wants guarantees from China that the latter would not divert such technologies to rogue states (especially North Korea) and does not want China to start copying Japanese or Japanese-owned US nuclear technologies and other infringements of Intellectual Property Rights (IPRs). Given the large Chinese carrot dangling in front of the Japanese, given that nuclear power is expected to replace coal as the main source of energy in China, and the seemingly unending Chinese thirst for energy, it is unlikely that Tokyo will let such concerns interfere in a big way.

Nuclear cooperation may just open a new format or avenue for Sino-Japanese relations for years to come, based on compatible needs. China has the large market and rising affluence in the middle class while Japan has the technologies and financing to meet China’s consumption needs as a way to beat the economic stagnancy.China is Japan’s ticket out of future 10-year old recession which Japan is recovering from during the Koizumi era, largely due to Chinese consumption of Japanese products.

While China and Japan are busy at work building new reactors, India, another emerging power in the region, does not want to be left out. President Vladimir Putin visits New Delhi on 25-26 January 2006 to put his signature on Russia’s own nuclear deal with India. Two 1000-megawatt Russian reactors will be constructed at the Kudankulam nuclear power plant in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu as well as other sites in India. The first two Kudankulam reactors were part of deal dating back to 1988. Now, booming as Asia’s fourth largest economy, India wants four more of these reactors at the same site.

While nuclear cooperation between the newly-confident regional powers in East Asia is probably welcomed by the rest of the region, there are more sinister forms of nuclear cooperation around as well. America’s two most-hated enemies are alleged to be working together in their own version of nuclear cooperation. North Koreais providing Iran with help for the latter’s own underground nuclear test similar to the one carried out by Pyongyang in October 2006. North Korea, identifying withIran’s defiance of the US, has agreed to share all the data it received from its nuclear test with Iran. Suspicions were already heightened when North Korea invited a team of Iranian scientists to observe and study Pyongyang’s underground nuclear test. If this is true, both countries are in contravention of the 23 December 2006UN Security Council resolution 1737 which imposes sanctions on Iran for its refusal to cooperate fully with the UN atomic energy watchdog or to suspend its uranium enrichment necessary as a first step for weaponizing nuclear technologies.

As a final note, the flurry of reactor construction in East and South Asia seems to have left out one vital component – where are the Americans? Russia’s deals inIndia is seen as nothing short of a victory as it has been competing with the United States for influence in India. Kremlin has been trying very hard to win over its former Cold War ally, India, after the latter was continually courted by Washington as part of the American strategy to surround rising China with democratic allies. The Russians are doing brisk business selling the Indians anything from nuclear reactors to military weapons.

Distracted by the Iraqi war and starved of funds, the US have let such enormous energy business opportunities slipped by with the Russians and Japanese cutting top deals in what are possibly the two most important markets in the world. In addition, quite tellingly, the US has even run out of funds to build its own nuclear reactors, needing to borrow heavily from the Japanese and giving up the ownership of one of its largest nuclear equipment firms to Toshiba. In long-term energy business, nuclear power may one day trump the oil business.

Sources:

NKorea providing Iran with nuclear help: report (Channelnewsasia, 24 Jan 2007)

Russia to build Indian nuclear reactors (Straits Times, 24 Jan 2007)

Japan and China to pursue nuclear-power cooperation (Japan Times, 23 Jan 2007)