China admits Japanese rescue team
Tokyo, Japan — As the death toll from China’s earthquake climbs and Chinese soldiers weary after days of rescue efforts, Beijing has changed its policy of refusing foreign rescue workers. Japan, the first country whose offer of rescue help was accepted, has dispatched a team of 60 rescue and medical experts to Sichuan province, with the first batch arriving early Friday.
A second team of mobile police, firefighters, coast guards and aid specialists arrived later in the day in Chengdu, the area’s biggest city. Another medical team of about 20 is to follow.
Acceptance of the rescue aid was a major turnaround on China's part, which had said as recently as Wednesday that it would not accept Japanese aid workers. The Japanese government had already assembled a team from across Japan, but they were sent home in the face of China’s rejection. But 24 hours later the message changed and the mission was revived.
The aid workers will be engaged in finding any surviving victims under the rubble and providing emergency medical service to the wounded.
Japan, which describes itself as a “quaking archipelago,” has long been training experts in earthquake rescue skills, most seriously after the Hanshin earthquake that hit Hyogo prefecture near Kobe city west of Tokyo, in 1995. That jolt and ensuing fire killed 6,434 people.
The latest Chinese jolt was reportedly ten times more powerful than the Hanshin quake, which registered a magnitude of 7.3. With memories of that devastation and the Niigata quakes in 2004 and 2007 still lingering in Japanese minds, the people have been watching news coverage of the China disaster with great sympathy.
When the special task force was originally declined, China was seen in the same light as Myanmar, which is still refusing to allow foreign aid personnel into the country to help the tens of thousands of victims of Cyclone Nargis.
Apparently, however, the Chinese leadership considered it unwise to shun Japanese goodwill, especially following what Chinese media had called "a successful trip" to Japan by President Hu Jintao just days ago. "Recent bilateral relations had positive effects" on China's decision, Itsunori Onodera, Japan's vice foreign minister, was quoted as saying by the Yomiuri Shimbun Friday.
Part of the affected region is populated mostly by Tibetan peoples, and was the scene of recent anti-government violence. Chinese leaders are not willing to let foreigners into these areas to communicate directly with the local people.
But among the industrialized nations, Japan was considered least likely to cause significant political friction with China over Tibet. No personnel from the Ministry of Defense or the Self Defense Forces were permitted to be included in the teams, however.
Later Friday, China announced that it would also admit three other specialist foreign rescue teams, from Russia, South Korea and Singapore.
However, people directly involved in the rescue operation fear it might be too late to make a difference, despite their advanced rescue techniques. Members of the Japan Agency for International Cooperation, which is managing the mission, were reportedly on edge all week as the critical hours and days immediately following the disaster slipped away.
Nonetheless, since China is trying to adopt an image as an open country as part of its Olympics campaign, its behavior in time of crisis is being watched sharply from abroad. Its immediate response to the disaster by sending in thousands of troops, and finally its decision to accept foreign assistance, reflect well on the country, which aspires to be a global power.
It is hoped that on its border, the nation of Myanmar may follow China's lead in opening its doors to foreign workers, who are ready to come to the aid of millions of suffering victims of Cyclone Nargis, still waiting for help.