Monday, October 31, 2005

When an Alliance is not an Alliance

The press these days routinely refers to the security relationship between Japan and the United States as a “military alliance.” Following the interim agreement to realign forces in Japan last week, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said the agreement would “ensure a durable and surely more capable alliance.”

In fact, the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security is not an alliance at all. Strictly speaking Japan is not an ally. It is a close friend, a partner, a collaborator on the world stage. But it is not an ally. That is strictly a courtesy title.

The current treaty obligates the United States to defend Japan should it be attacked. But Japan does not have an equal obligation to help defend America if it is attacked. That’s because Article 9, the war-renouncing clause written into Japan’s post-war Constitution, has been interpreted as barring any kind of “collective defense.”

Here is the deal. The U.S. promises to defend Japan in the event of an attack. Japan provides the U.S. with bases which it can use as it sees fit in advancing its strategic interests. Hence American B-52s from Kadena AFB on Okinawa flew bombing missions over North Vietnam during the war.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is a real alliance. After the attack on America on Sept. 11, 2001, Washington invoked the mutual defense provisions. That is why Germany, France and Canada, countries not often thought of as being helpful in the war on terrorism, sent troops to Afghanistan. Japan did not.

Last week, senior officials of both governments reached agreement on some sweeping changes in the disposition of forces in Japan. The changes are designed to promote better cooperation between the military of the two nations and to .lessen the burden on host communities, especially on Okinawa. The watchword is “interoperability.”

One of the changes that particularly caught my eye was a plan to move the Japanese air defense command center from Fuchu to the big American base at Yokota. The Ground Self-Defense Forces rapid reaction forces headquarters is also to move to the American army base at Camp Zama in the interests of closer coordination.

When I was a young air force officer at Yokota in the late 1960s, the U.S. Forces, Japan and the Japanese Self Defense Force (JSDF) might as well have existed on different planets. In nearly two years, I never met a JSDF officer. To my knowledge there was no liaison or close coordination. No contact. Nothing.

When the American forces dealt with Japanese, it was usually with local civilian authorities over such mundane matters as off-base housing. When contingencies arose, such as capture of the U.S. Pueblo or the shooting down of an EC-121 over the Sea of Japan, Japanese forces were not a factor in any war plans.

That began to change in the 1990s, the catalyst being the Gulf War. Japan poneyed up billions of dollars to support the coalition, but, consistent with its anti-war principles, provided no troops. Tokyo was stunned afterwards at how ungrateful Washington and others were for their generous financial support.

That began a slow evolution in Japan’s use of its military. The Diet passed laws that allowed Japanese to participate in international peacekeeping missions in Cambodia and elsewhere. In 1996 Washington and Tokyo inked the Joint Security Declaration in which Japan promised to provide logistical support for U.S. forces stationed in Japan. Joint research in missile defenses was authorized.

The reality and the paperwork have now gotten so out of whack that Japan is now seriously considering for the first time revising its Constitution in a way that officially recognizes the existence of the Self-Defense forces. The draft, to be unveiled later this month, reportedly allows for the exercise of all rights of self-defense, includingforming alliances with other countries and deploying Self-Defense forces overweas.

Does this portend a revision of the existing security treaty turning it into a real alliance? In all likelihood, neither side would want to awaken that sleeping dog. Even though nearly 50 years have passed, memories remain of the riots surrounding the last revision of the treaty in 1960, riots that forced President Dwight Eisenhower to cancel his proposed state visit.

A lot has changed in Japan over those years. The radical student movement that provided so many of the foot soldiers then hardly exists today. And it seems doubtful that Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi would have to ram any revisions through the Diet at midnight, like his predecessor Nobosuke Kishi.

Koizumi has a huge majority in the Diet, and the main opposition, the Democratic Party of Japan abandoned knee-jerk opposition to the security treaty in the interests of electability.

That leaves perhaps only the tiny Social Democratic Party to carry the flag of traditional Japanese pacificism. Seiji Mataichi, the party’s secretary general, said of the latest defense agreement, “it goes beyond the contents of the U.S. Japan Security Treaty.”

Mr. Mataichi is almost certainly correct in his statement. But his party holds only six seats in the Diet.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

My Brush with Bird Flu

I once had a close brush with avian influenza, bird flu. No, I didn’t get sick. The small outdoor poultry market where bird flu was first detected in chickens in Hong Kong was located in my neighborhood. I often walked past it to go to the post office next door.

I think about that tiny market as I read about the growing concern that people have about the spread of bird flu to this country. There is good reason for concern, and for preparedness. But there is also plenty of opportunity for undue panic. Let me explain.

The first recorded instance of human infection of the H5N1 virus from birds took place in Hong Kong in 1997. Some 18 people were infected and six died. Again in early 2003 the virus infected two people, one of whom died. But by then, bird flu was already being reported throughout Southeast Asia.

The bird flu outbreak was not nearly as scary or as deadly for us as the SARS crisis that hit Hong Kong a couple years later. As I remember, it was mainly an occasion for bashing the new Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa for incompetence, much as President George W. Bush has been criticized for his handling Hurricane Katrina.

The latest outbreaks, which began in mid-2003, are the largest and most severe on record. The virus is now considered endemic in parts of Indonesia, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Laos. Japan, South Korea, and Malaysia, where the virus was also detected, have taken countermeasures and are presently considered disease-free.

The outbreaks are spreading beyond Asia, as anyone who reads a newspaper knows. Russia reported its first case in July, Kazakhstan and Mongolia in August. This month H5N1 was confirmed in Turkey, Romania and some Aegean Sea islands of Greece. Tests are being conducted in Croatia and Bulgaria.

It seems only a matter of time before the first bird flu case is confirmed in North America, and given the recent news and hysterical talk about using the army to quarantine people, it will probably cause consternation and fear. But it need not cause panic.

At the moment, people can get the bird flu virus only through direct contact with fowl, or surfaces and objects contaminated by their feces. To date, most human cases have occurred in rural parts of Asia where many households keep small chicken flocks, which often roam freely, sometimes entering homes or sharing outdoor areas where children play.

Even in a place as cosmopolitan as Hong Kong, many people still buy their chicken from a wet market, where they point to the bird they want in a cage. The butcher then plucks the feathers and chops its head off in front of you. Very few Americans get their chicken this way, and there is no evidence that cooked poultry is a source of infection.

It is worth remembering that in the current outbreak, laboratory-confirmed cases of human infection have been reported in just four countries: Cambodia, Indonesia Thailand and Vietnam. As mentioned earlier, three countries have staunched the spread without any single person being infected.

Hong Kong slaughtered every chicken in the territory, and that brought the outbreak to a halt. Elsewhere in Asia, officials have killed about 150 million chickens. I haven’t noticed a spike in the price of my McNuggets, although I imagine the first consequence of bird flu in the U.S. would be felt in a rise in poultry prices or shortages as birds – not people – are quarantined.

The European Community has already banned importation of poultry from Turkey, Romania and the Greek islands. It can’t be long before all poultry from Greece is banned too. Certainly mass cullings or embargoes on poultry could be one consequence of the spread of bird flu.

Of course, there are other things to worry about than just the price of chicken. In the present outbreak, more than half of those infected with the virus – about 60 out of 100 people -- have died. And most of the victims have been previously healthy children and young adults.

Countries all over the world are scrambling to produce a vaccine against H5N1 and stockpiles of the anti-viral drug Tamiflu, often used to treat seasonal flu and thought to improve the survival prospects of bird flu victims if administered early.

But if the virus morphs into something that is more easily transferable from human to human, like the common cold, all bets are off. With the virus now entrenched in large parts of Asia, the risk that of more humans coming down with bird flu is increasing. Each additional human case gives the virus the opportunity to improve its transmissibility to humans and thus develop a pandemic strain.

If bird flu should make the jump from birds to humans turning the limited outbreak into a global pandemic infecting and possibly killing millions of people, as some are now predicting, that grubby little poultry market in Hong Kong will take on a grim significance. It was there that it all began.

Todd Crowell worked as a Senior Writer for Asiaweek in Hong Kong. He currently comments on Asian affairs at Asia Cable (

Friday, October 21, 2005

Political Reforms in Hong Kong

The legislative reforms unveiled last Wednesday in Hong Kong are the most comprehensive since China took the territory back from Britain. The bad news for democrats is that they fall short of the universal suffrage they crave. Still, the democrats may have no choice but to go along.

The plan made public by Chief Secretary Rafael Hui would add ten seats to the Legislative Council (Legco), five of them directly elected, the other five chosen by district board councilors. It also proposes to enlarge the electoral college that chooses the Chief Executive by including elected as well as appointed district board members.

Of course, the government’s proposals had been rumored for weeks, so there were no real surprises in the announcement. The manner in which the reforms were tabled was curious, however. Why didn’t the Chief Executive, Donald Tsang, unveil the proposals himself in his annual policy address on Oct 14?

The specter of the last British colonial governor, Chris Patten, still hangs over the slow evolution of democracy in Hong Kong. I imagine that Tsang did not want to be so personally identified with the reforms. Patten’s whole administration and legacy was defined by his efforts to expand the number of directly elected seats in the legislature.

Those electoral changes, which Patten unveiled shortly after he became governor in 1992 and implemented in 1995, set off an enormous row between London and Beijing with Hong Kong caught in the middle. It is not surprising that the first Chinese Chief Executive, Tung Chee-hwa, would not touch the issue.

It is possible that Hong Kong needed a respite from all of the sturm und drang of the Patten years in those fragile and nervous early months following the handover in 1997 as both sides, China and Hong Kong, got used to each other. That respite came to a screeching halt, however, in the huge protest march that took place on July 1, 2003.

During his seven years as chief, Tung never talked about political reform, studiously ignored the democrats and implemented only those electoral changes that were explicitly spelled out in the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s constitution. To his credit Tsang has reopened the issue, although by letting Hui introduce the measures, he has shown that he doesn’t want to be too closely identified with it.

On the plus side of the ledger the proposed reforms represent the most far-reaching political reforms under China’s flag. On the negative side, they fall short of providing the “universal suffrage” that many people in Hong Kong desire. Already many prominent democrats are lining up to denounce the reforms as not going nearly far enough to bring full democracy to Hong Kong.

It should be noted that the term “universal suffrage” has a special meaning in Hong Kong. Everyone in the territory has the vote already. It’s just that these votes are channeled into only a narrow portion of the body politic. Universal suffrage in Hong Kong means everybody voting for all members of the Legco and for the Chief Executive, now chosen by an electoral college of 800 members.

Obviously, Tsang would not have allowed the reform proposals to go forward without Beijing’s approval. In any case, since it involves a change in the composition, which sets Lego membership at 60, any reform would have to be reported to the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress.

The central government seems willing to allow for the Legco’s expansion provided that the ratio of directly elected and functional constituencies remains equal at 35/35 instead of the present 30/30. This is why five of the seats chosen by district board members are being labeled “functional constituencies,” even though functional constituencies are supposed to represent special interests, such as lawyers, accountants or civil engineers.

If all of this is beginning to sound a little confusing and insider, bear with me. Hong Kong has a jerry-built, Rube Goldberg political process because it is patched together to accommodate a local population that, for the most part, wants a fully democratic system, and the fact that Hong Kong is part of a country that doesn’t, so far, embrace any form of democracy.

Nobody in Hong Kong would be so rude as to suggest that the whole deal looks awfully Pattenesque, but let me. The five district board seats are less like functional constituencies than they are like the old Election Committee, which under Patten chose 10 Legco members and was made up of – guess what? – district board councillors.

The only difference is that after the handover, the new administration reintroduced the colonial practice of having the government appoint some district board members, though they still amount to only about a fifth of the more than 500 local councillors. Nevertheless, the democrats have seized on these appointed representatives as a fatal flaw in the reforms.

For a while it seemed as if the democrats would support the proposal as the best deal they would likely get at this time. Lee Wing-tat, chairman of the Democratic Party, even had some positive things to say about it. But then veteran democracy campaigner Martin Lee spoke up, hectoring democrats to get some backbone and courage of their convictions.

“This is the most critical moment. If we cannot defend our bottom line of [full] democracy, it is pointless calling ourselves democrats,” he wrote in Next magazine. Lee surrendered his formal leadership of the Democratic Party some years ago, but his views obviously still carry considerable weight. The bottom line for Lee has always been universal suffrage.

Moreover, the closer the democrats look at the likely outcome of these reforms, the more they sharpen their pencils and do the sums, the more they understand that the reforms will do little to alter the balance of power. Assuming that the democrats win three of the five new directly elected seats and two or three of the new functional seats, they would increase their numbers to 30-31 out of 70.

Since the first elections in Hong Kong in 1991, the democrats (both members of the Democratic Party and independent democrats) have consistently garnered roughly 60 per cent of the vote. That now translates into about 40 percent of the seats in the legislature. If they won 30 seats under the new arrangements, they would still have . . . what? About 40 percent of the seats.

At the moment the democrats seem determined to oppose the political package put forward by the government. Some 23 of the 25 sitting liberals issued a joint statement urging the government to provide a timetable and road map towards universal suffrage. Still the political climate makes it risky for them to simply oppose these reforms.

Public approval for the democratic members is low at the moment. The government of Donald Tsang is very popular, unlike the previous administration. Beijing seems to be making peace offerings to the democrats as shown by the get-together in Guangzhou earlier this month. Another mass demonstration being bruited for early December might prove embarrassingly sparse.

The public may look on opposition as being simply stubborn obstructionism in pursuit of a utopian cause. The baby thaw with Beijing, which they are so eager to nurture, would freeze again. In the end the democrats are in a corner and may not have many good options other than to accept the proposals and try for some compromises.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

China's Health Care Crisis

In the 25 years since the introduction of market reforms, China’s leaders have focused single-mindedly on economic development. In that time China has lifted tens of millions of people out of abject poverty, especially in the cities of the rapidly developing coastal region.

But while the economy has been advancing at a blazing clip, the bottom has fallen out of health care. Said one economics professor at Beijing University’s China Center for Economic Research: “the economy is growing, people have more income, but hospital costs are rising faster.”

Sound familiar?

In a curious way, China’s health care troubles are a mirror image of the problems facing the United States – except that the situation in China is much worse. By some accounts about 80 percent of China’s 1.3 billion people do not have access to health insurance of any kind.

Many mistakenly assume that since China is a communist country, it provides everyone with the basic necessities of life, even if they are meager. It may be a dictatorship, people say, but at least they provide free health care. No so. Chinese parents even have to pay to have their children immunized.

During the “planned economy period” – roughly thirty years, 1949-1979 -- workers received health care through state-owned enterprises (SOEs), which were in fact giant welfare machines providing what was then known as the “iron rice bowl.” They are being replaced by private companies, many of which do not provide even basic insurance.

Much the same thing is occurring in the U.S., where the big state-owned enterprises – oops, I mean blue chip corporations – are steadily going bankrupt in an apparent effort to reduce medical and pension costs. The latest to follow this course is the giant auto parts maker, Delphi. General Motors is also desperately working to reduce its health care liabilities.

In Mao Zedong’s time, nine out of ten rural peasants had access to subsidized health care run by “barefoot doctors.” In the two decades since the beginning of market reforms, this arrangement collapsed. Now the vast majority in the countryside and many in the cities have no real health care unless they can pay for it out of their own pockets if they can.

At one time the Chinese government covered 100 percent of health care costs. By 2003 that figure had fallen to around 17 percent. Individual patients pay for the rest. I’m not sure about the figures for the U.S., but I’d guess that the portion of national health care costs covered by government medicare/aid programs is close to 25 percent, maybe higher.

Many top government advisors, economies and even the state-controlled media are openly criticizing the Communist Party for failing to arrest the steady erosion of China’s health services. Paying patients are being gouged by hospitals bent on making profits, while the poor get virtually no care at all.

Health Minister Gao Qiang slammed hospitals in The People’s Daily for putting profits ahead of public interest. “Chinese medical institutions have been over-commercialized, relying on exorbitant charges for their maintenance and development,” Gao said. The goal should be affordable health care for all.

In August the Development Research Center, one of the top government advisory boards, issued a scathing report decrying what it called a “tidal wave of commercialization of the medical service.” It went on to say, “the excessive commercialization and market-oriented health service results in the decreasing availability of health service.”

The study noted that some contagious diseases and epidemics that were controlled during the period of collectivization are returning, while the government has floundered faced with new plagues like AIDS and SARS. At the same time, because general prosperity is increasing, chronic diseases are on the rise: more people are dying of heart disease, cancer and strokes.

Earlier this month a plenum of the Chinese Communist Party adopted the country’s 11th Five-Year Plan (although now mostly a market economy, China, still publishes Five-Year plans just like it did in the old days), which, in general terms, puts the stress on more balanced growth and improving social services.

China’s leaders are well aware that growing income gaps – between east and west, coast and interior, rural and urban, can lead to unrest. China experienced some 74,000 protests or outright riots during 2004. The vast majority involved such things as local corruption, overzealous tax collection and land confiscation for development, but sometimes they involve health care.

Last summer the state-controlled press reported about a farmer suffering from lung cancer and too poor to get care, who set off a bomb in a bus, killing himself and another passenger and wounding 30 other people.

China’s millions have to take care of themselves the old-fashioned way, either by saving or falling back on families for support. The weak social services and lack of a safety net are reasons why Chinese are such prodigious savers.

This is admirable in an abstract way. Yet if the Chinese could divert more of the money they put under the mattress towards consumption, it might help create a bigger internal market, lessening the need to export and drawing more goods from America and other countries.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Still Hong Kong's Star Attraction

The gangplank falls with a resounding clank, and a remarkable cross-section of Hong Kong people heaves itself from the benches and surges across the quay. In the throng might be a nattily dressed Chinese businessman hurrying to a lunch meeting or a pair of Filipina maids twittering among themselves.

Or, there may be an Australian tourist, in a T-shirt and shorts, camera slung around his neck leaning over the railing to get one last shot of the famous skyline. By nightfall, the crowd includes a sprinkling of men and women in evening clothes returning from a concert at the Cultural Center or a soiree at one of the luxury hotels.

Hong Kong now boasts its very own Disneyland, but for my money the best ride in town, the best ride anywhere, is still a short trip across Victoria Harbor on the Star Ferry. And speaking of money, the fare at the equivalent of about 30 cents is certainly easy on the pocket book.

In a city where very few buildings last for more than a couple decades, if they are not torn down sooner to make way for ever more profitable edifices, it is comforting to know that the ferries have been making their daily crossings for more than 100 years -- 400 crossings a day, 150,000 in a year (give or take a few disruptions from typhoons and war), perhaps 12 million crossing since the Star Ferry Company was established in 1898.

Anyone who has ever rented the 1950s movie The World of Suzy Wong would find the ferry and its terminal still instantly recognizable nearly 50 years later. Actor William Holden meets Suzy while crossing from Kowloon to Hong Kong Island on the ferry. That scene lasted about as long as it takes the ferry to cover the distance, which is about seven minutes.

Dorabjes Nowrojee, a Parsee from India, started the Star Ferry in 1898. For reasons now lost to history, he named all of his boats with the word “Star” as part of the title, and the word has been in the name of every vessel ever since. So plying the harbor are a Twinkling Star, a Meridian Star, a Northern Star, a Silver Star, a Golden Star, a Shining Star.

But there has never been a Red Star in this ex-British colony and famously capitalistic enclave, but who knows? Someday, in a burst of solidarity with mainland China, there may emerge a ferry with that name.

Nothing except war or an occasional typhoon has ever interrupted service. During the 1925 general strike, the Royal Navy took over the running of the ferry service, but the naval ratings had difficulty maneuvering the boats into the ferry slips without crashing.

During the Japanese invasion in 1941, the ferries operated under enemy fire until the last British and other colonial troops evacuated Kowloon. When the British returned in 1945, they found two ferries partially submerged at the Hong Kong side terminal and a third sunk half way up the Pearl River.

I’ve ridden the Star Ferry in fog so thick you have to wonder how the pilot manages to avoid smashing into somebody. But so long as he can see at least 100 meters, he plows slowly on, sounding the for horn every two minutes with an assistant peering into the mist from the bow. Under such circumstances the normal crossing can take half an hour or more, but the ferries still run.

Until 1972 the Star Ferry was the only scheduled way to cross the harbor. Anybody stranded on either side of the harbor after midnight had to find a hotel, crash with friends or hire a private sampan, known curiously as walla wallas. The hoisting of a typhoon warning signal used to produce a stampede of people crowding the terminals to get home before the rising winds and choppy seas forced suspension of service.

Now, of course, you can hire a taxi and cross by way of any of the three underground, cross-harbor highway tunnels or take the subway under the harbor. But if I have sufficient time, or have no particular place I want to go, or if I just want to while away a pleasant half hour, I always prefer to take the Star Ferry.

I never tire of watching the panorama of Hong Kong’s harbor unfold before me, the constant traffic of barges, cruise liners or the occasional visiting warship, all set against the backdrop of the most famous skyline in the world.

Generally, I prefer the upper deck – “first class,” – which is farther from the engines and less noisy. I take a seat up front where I can feel the breeze in my face. Up until the beginning of World War II, no European was actually allowed to mingle among the Chinese on the lower deck. Men were also required to wear a shirt with a collar and a necktie.

The ferry service is only a small cog in the enormous property combine known as Wharf Holdings and not exactly what might be called a profit center. The comparatively low fares make it hard to get a decent return. Nevertheless, fares can be a sensitive issue.

The worst social discord in Hong Kong’s history broke out in 1966 after the Star Ferry raised its rates by ten Hong Kong cents (little more than a penny). They are still known as the “Star Ferry Riots” – although historians say the fare rise merely masked deeper grievances.

The ferry franchise runs until 2008. After that the future is unclear since the government wants to rationalize inner harbor services and may re-tender them. Also impacting the ferry’s future are reclamation projects that are steadily narrowing the distance between Kowloon and Hong Kong.

Because of these uncertainties, Wharf has not made plans for new construction, even though the average age of the fleet is 30 years. General Manager Frankie Yick says the parent company “is committed to providing service so long as we don’t lose too much money.” In capitalist Hong Kong that is a rare concession.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Power to the People's Republic

During the long drought in nuclear power plant orders (the last U.S. civilian nuclear power plant was ordered in 1978) the manufacturers have not been idle. Much thought has gone into new designs that address many of the concerns that brought nuclear power to a halt in the U.S. and slowed its progress elsewhere: safety, cost and waste management.

It would appear that the immediate beneficiaries of all this new thinking will be in Asia. This month Beijing is expected to announce its decision on who will get contracts to provide reactors for four new nuclear power plants being built along China’s coast, two at Sanmen in Zhejiang province and two at Yangjiang in Guangdong province.

Everyone in the nuclear power industry is watching this deal closely. The four new plants are likely to be the first installments in a wave of new nuclear power plant construction, which will see as many as 30 new plants constructed in China by 2020. Currently, China has nine operating plants and gets about 2.5 percent of its electricity from nuclear power -- compared with 30% in Japan.

The frontrunners for the initial contract are the U.S. Westinghouse, now owned by British Nuclear Fuels, Areva of France and the Russian firm AtomStroyExport. The Russian company is considered something of a long shot. Both Westinghouse and Areva are pushing their latest models and dangling the promise of massive transfers of the latest nuclear power technology.

Westinghouse, based in Monroeville, Penn, a suburb of Pittsburgh, is pushing its new AP1000 reactor, a design developed only in the last few years. The design has already been certified by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Agency. If its bid is accepted, China would be its first sale. Although British-owned, the 5,000 or so jobs associated with the project would go to Americans

The AP1000 reactor boasts what is called a passive approach to nuclear safety. It is not dependent on electric-powered pumps to circulate water to keep the reactor core cool and the fuel from melting in the event of an accident. The water, stored in a tank outside of the containment, would circulate by natural convection. The design uses significantly fewer pumps, pipes and valves.

The reduction in components helps reduce cost and, importantly, construction time. The plant can also be built in modules in the U.S. then shipped to China. The company claims the whole plant can be constructed, from the laying of the first concrete to loading of fuel, in three years. In the 1980s nuclear plant construction times had stretched to nearly ten years or longer

Westinghouse is competing with Areva of France (through its Framatome subsidiary) which has developed the European Pressurized Water Reactor (EPR). The design is also less reliant on emergency generators to run pumps to keep the core cooled in an emergency. It has other unique features designed to prevent the consequences of a “China Syndrome” meltdown. A prototype is currently being built in Finland.

General Electric has its own advanced reactor design called the Economic Simplified Boiling Water Reactor (BWR). But China has not shown a preference for boiling water reactors (so-called because the steam is created in the reactor core itself), although they are popular in Japan and Taiwan. Two earlier versions were built in Japan in the 1990s; two more are being built in Taiwan.

But Congress is doing what it can to scotch the Westinghouse deal just as it helped defeat the Unocal takeover by CNOOC. In June the House of Representatives voted 313-144 on an amendment to bar the U.S. Export-Import Bank from loaning the China National Nuclear Corp. (CNNC) the $5 billion needed to buy the plants.

The debate was accompanied by a lot of misguided rhetoric about nuclear proliferation and technology transfer, not to mention a copious amount of nationalistic chest-thumping about loaning taxpayer money to the British. The Senate defeated a similar amendment so the issue awaits resolution in conference committee.

Earlier this year BNF announced it wanted to get out of the reactor business and sell its stake in Westinghouse, which might complicate the bid. However, a sale might not change attitudes on Capitol Hill, since the likely buyer would be another foreign entity, either Areva or Mitsubishi Heavy Industries.

Nuclear Waste Disposal
China’s nine civilian nuclear power plants so far have accumulated approximately 1,000 metric tons of wastes By the year 2020, if its plans for new power plants pan out, China will be producing roughly 1,000 metric tons a year that year and every year thereafter. By 2040, when China hopes to have a permanent nuclear waste repository in operation, it will have accumulated 32,000 tons.

For the near future, the waste is being stored temporarily in spent fuel pools close by the reactors. There is nothing unusual about this arrangement. For example, the United States has operated more than 100 nuclear power plants for the better part of 30 years and still depends largely on on-site storage. A permanent underground repository at Yucca Mountain in the state of Nevada, about 100 miles from Las Vegas, has yet to get a license.

China’s equivalent of Yucca Mountain is in the Beihan Mountain area in northwestern Gansu province. Technicians are zeroing in on three sites near each other and close to the fabled Silk Road city of Dunhuang, said an American government official who recently visited Dunhuang and attended a Chinese presentation on nuclear waste disposal there.

If all goes well, the Chinese expect to pick a suitable site within the next five years leading to construction of a permanent waste repository on the site by this timetable:

2010 Completion of site surveys and site selection
2020 Repository design completed
2050 Site excavated and ready to receive waste

The Chinese expect to design and build a civilian chemical reprocessing complex, probably within 100 kilometers of the waste repository by this time, the official said. Spent fuel from nuclear power plants will taken there and chemically treated to recover unused uranium and plutonium. The latter substances will be recycled into fresh nuclear fuel; the residue will be vitrified and buried.

The Chinese have the benefit of time, since their waste disposal repository plans are being developed concurrently with the early stages of nuclear power plant construction. On site water-storage spent fuel ponds can keep fuel safely for 15 years or longer, before being sent to other storage pools located away from the reactors, presumably closer to the plants where it will be ultimately reprocessed.

A different version of this story appears on Asia Times Online

Monday, October 03, 2005

The Bombers Return to Bali

Australia’s former foreign minister Gareth Evans must wish he could retract his words. Only a week ago Evans had informed a group in his home country that, the terrorist organization Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) “no longer poses a serious threat in Indonesia or elsewhere.”

A few days later three bombs exploded in Bali, killing 32 people and wounding more than 100. The explosions went off only blocks from the site of the more deadly bombings that took place almost three years ago this month, killing some 200 people. It bore the hallmarks of a JI operation.

Evans, who now serves as chairman of International Crisis Group, an anti-terrorism think tank in Singapore, can be forgiven his pollyanish outlook. Until this past weekend it was beginning to look like Indonesia was a success story in the Global War on Terrorism. In many ways, despite the bombings, it still is.

He isn’t the only one to think so. One month before the attack Sidney Jones, ICG’s Southeast Asia project director, told a meeting of editors: “There won’t be another attack as big as the Bali bombing. JI’s alive, consolidating and actively recruiting, but most of the leadership is no longer interested in bombing Western targets as it’s wasting time, funds, and human resources.”

I guess the operative word is “most.”

Indonesian authorities quickly pointed the finger at two JI operatives, who undoubtedly are still interested in bombing Westerners. They are Azhari bin Husin and Noordin Mohamed Top, the two most-wanted men in Asia. It was a logical assumption to make since they are also suspected in being behind the 2002 Bali bombings, the attack on the Marriott Hotel in 2003 and the Australian Embassy a year ago.

Azhari looks, in his old university mug shot anyway, exactly like the mild-mannered lecturer he once was until he became a professional terrorist. He may have been in Bali since he has a penchant for being close to the scene of operations. It is said that he was seen sketching the interior of the Marriott shortly before it was bombed. During the attack on the embassy, he drove the suicide car close to the hotel, then got out and fled on a motorcycle while his accomplice plowed into the embassy grounds killing himself and a dozen others.

Until the Bali outrage, it seemed as if the bombing wing of JI was turning its attention more to Indonesians rather than Westerners. Two terror incidents in Sulawesi last May, one of which killed 21 civilians, went largely unreported outside Indonesia, presumably because no Westerners were involved and the locations didn’t have instantly recognizable names.

Ms Jones seems to have had a premonition that the Bali attack was coming. In the Asian Wall Street Journal in June, she wrote: “It could be a three-act drama – in which case there is one more attack to come. After the Ceram attack targeting police . . . and the Tenena attack targeting Christians, it’s possible that the mujahidin might turn their attention to a Western target for the third attack.”

The Indonesian authorities have been effective in tracking down, arresting and convicting many JI terrorists over the past few years. In September a judge in Jakarta sentenced Darmawan Mutho to death for his part in the Sept. 9, 2004, bombing of the Australian embassy. “I’m grateful to God to die a martyr,” he shouted after the sentence was read.

Many of the other leading jihadists in Indonesia are now in custody. They include Riduan Isamuddin, better known by his nom de guerre as Hambali, who was Osama bin Ladin’s deadly lieutenant in Southeast Asia. He is held by the Americans. Others include the radical Islamic preacher Abu Bakir Bashir and al Qaeda operative Omar al-Faruq.

The remaining jihadists are said to be lowering their sights. Where once they dreamed of creating a Southeast Asian pan-Islamic caliphate that stretched from southern Thailand to Mindanao in the Philippines, they now concentrate on establishing an Islamic Republic in Indonesia, said Ms Jones.

“The bathwater in which Jemaah Islamiyah once floated is slowly starting to drain. Crippled by arrests, loss of leaders, and racked by internal divisions over the wisdom of attacks on civilians and Westerners, they are looking for more tangible goals.”

“Compelling Success Story”
American officials have not always been very complimentary about Indonesia, but Eric G. John, Deputy Assistant Secretary of state, East Asian and Pacific Affairs, was effusive in praising what he called a “compelling success story,” in his Sept. 15 testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Said John: “the Indonesian Government has done an admirable job of pursuing, arresting and prosecuting terrorists. Since the Bali bombings in October 2002, Indonesia’s police and prosecutors have arrested and convicted more than 130 terrorists. Indonesia has established an effective counter-terrorism police force that is working hard to bring terrorists to justice.”

But while Indonesians have been effective in apprehending and convicting actual terrorists, they have been reluctant to attack terrorism’s roots. Jakarta has never banned Jemaah Islamiyah or moved seriously to close down the 18 known JI religious schools. Washington, too, was slow to declare JI a terrorist organization out of deference to Jakarta.

Jemaah Islamiyah means “the community of Islam,” and officials in every Indonesian administration have been reluctant to ban the group, saying since it would look as if they are attacking all Muslims. At least that is what they claim. The latest outrage may push the President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyano, Indonesia’s first freely elected president, to act.

But President Susilo has other things on his mind at the moment. The bombings took place on the very day that his government cut subsidies that effectively boosted the price of gasoline 88 percent overnight. This is always a sensitive issue in Indonesia, and one wonders if the bombers timed their attack precisely when the government would be on the defensive.

The jihadists’ dream of turning Indonesia into an Islamic state is not going to fade, of course. But recent developments suggest that it will move into the political arena, much as in Malaysia. Indeed, a fully democratic Indonesia means that Islamists can express themselves more freely and work toward their goal through the ballot box.

But first the government has to capture Azhari bin Husin and his sidekick.