Argument

What Kerry Should Tell China

How the U.S. secretary of state can win friends and influence Beijing.

SHANGHAI — On April 13, when John Kerry pays his first visit to China as the U.S. secretary of state, North Korea will be at the top of his agenda, with Iran's nuclear program and cyberattacks also extremely important.

Kerry will likely urge China to rein in Pyongyang, enforce sanctions against Iran, and cooperate on curtailing cyberterrorism. But for Washington to maximize the gains from Kerry's visit, it has to accord China's interests more respect.

North Korea worries both countries. The more the rest of the world sanctions Pyongyang, the more aggressively it acts, which invites more sanctions. Although North Korea's threat of nuclear attacks against the United States is not credible, this cycle of action and reaction could escalate the situation well beyond initial intentions. Tensions on the Korean Peninsula are now the highest they've been since the end of the Korean War in 1953. On April 7, Chinese President Xi Jinping said, "No one should be allowed to throw a region and even the whole world into chaos for selfish gain." While he didn't name any particular country, his message was clear: China is losing patience with North Korea, while the United States needs to be responsible with its military, in this case and elsewhere. China is particularly concerned about the U.S. "rebalancing" or "pivot" to Asia, which in Beijing's view has made the region more unstable.

For China, Iran is less worrisome than North Korea. Although Iran has refused to stop enriching uranium, it insists its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes, and it allows limited access to its nuclear facilities. China, the United States, and the international community should let Iran account for its past nuclear activities while restraining its uranium enrichment to civil programs. Meanwhile, the United States should allow Iran to keep its economic ties with the rest of the world.

Then there is cybersecurity. Faced with what they claim to be a growing cyberthreat, China and the United States seem to have very different responses: The Pentagon in January announced that it will be increasing the size of its cybersecurity force fourfold over the next several years, with an eye toward China, while Beijing has declared that its military does not yet launch any cyberattacks at all. Both sides claim to be increasingly attacked by the other side. Instead of arguing endlessly over whether an attack from a Chinese IP address means Beijing intentionally launched the assault, the two countries could discuss how to protect crucial infrastructure while collaborating on investigating and punishing cross-border hacking.

Beijing, meanwhile, has a concern of its own to share with Kerry: U.S. rebalancing. Washington may think that what it views as China's arrogance since the 2008 financial crisis prompted its Asia pivot, but Beijing sees in the pivot a U.S. plan to contain China and infringe upon its legitimate maritime rights.

Disagreement between China and the United States is nothing new. Since the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, the United States has prevented mainland China from unifying with Taiwan. Over the last few years, however, as it began pivoting to Asia, the United States has shifted its position on the Diaoyu Islands, which Japan took illegally from China between 1894 and 1895 and which the United States illegally "reverted" to Japan in 1972. The U.S. government long maintained an ambiguous view on the islands, but with its Asia pivot, Barack Obama's administration has more clearly stated to defend them as Japanese territory. Adding to Beijing's suspicions, the Philippines, against the backdrop of the U.S. pivot, has increasingly tried to claim China's Huangyan Island (which the Philippines calls the Scarborough Shoal) as its own.

Beijing must urge the United States to be honest and respect historical facts in Asia. If Kerry asks China to abide by international law and be a responsible stakeholder, China would agree completely, as China's possession of the islands of Taiwan, Diaoyu, and Huangyan have nothing to do with violating any international law. However, the United Nations Charter prohibits any country from infringing upon another's sovereignty -- therefore the Pentagon should end its weapons sale to Taiwan. Being a responsible stakeholder does not mean allowing Japan to steal China's Diaoyu Islands.

I'm not arguing that China should wait to work together with the United States and its allies to tackle North Korean and Iranian nuclear issues, and buttress cooperation on cybersecurity, until the two countries resolve the island issues. Nevertheless, Kerry should not seek cooperation without respecting China's reasonable expectations.

NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images

Argument

Fault Lines, Not Red Lines

Why the earthquake near Iran's dated and unproven nuclear reactor at Bushehr should scare you.

A 6.3-magnitude earthquake shook Iran's southern shores on Tuesday, April 9, on the afternoon that the country was celebrating its National Nuclear Technology Day. Nearly 800 homes were destroyed, killing 37 people and injuring more than 900. Iran's sole nuclear reactor, located in Bushehr, almost 100 miles from the quake's epicenter, was, according to Iranian and Russian officials, unaffected. But there's no way of knowing until the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report comes out in May. Either way, they got lucky.

The Bushehr reactor, which was completed in 2011, sits at the intersection of three tectonic plates and is designed to endure earthquakes up to a magnitude of 6.7 on the Richter scale. So this was a very close call for the hybrid German-Russian reactor -- a virtual petri dish of amalgamated equipment and antiquated technology. The sui generis nature of the reactor means that Iran cannot benefit from other countries' safety experiences.

It also means regular mechanical breakdowns. During tests conducted in February 2011, all four of the reactor's emergency cooling pumps (holdovers from the 1970s) were damaged, sending tiny metal shavings into the cooling water. The plant's engineers were forced to thoroughly clean the reactor's core, an operation that further delayed its long-overdue launch. Again, in October 2012, the reactor was shut down and fuel rods were unloaded after stray bolts were found beneath the fuel cells.

The Bushehr reactor is under IAEA supervision, and its technology is deemed not prone to proliferation. As such, it has been exempted from the U.N. Security Council sanctions imposed on Iran. But there is still some international confusion as to the point of the facility: Iran is rich in oil, and power generated by the Bushehr plant accounts for less than 2 percent of Iran's electricity production. Meanwhile, despite the enormous sums spent to bring the facility online, approximately 15 percent of the country's generated electricity gets lost through old and ill-maintained transmission lines.

But more worrisome is the perilous state of the new -- and yet old -- reactor. Any nuclear disaster at Bushehr would have regional implications. Given that the prevailing wind in Bushehr heads south-southwest, the release of radioactive material could threaten civilians in other Persian Gulf countries. Bushehr is closer to the capitals of Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia's oil-rich Eastern Province than it is to Tehran. That's why the emir of Kuwait recently urged Iran to enhance its safety cooperation with the IAEA. The cost of cleanup, medical care, energy loss, and population relocation could approach hundreds of billions of dollars over decades, and release of highly radioactive fission products would be highly detrimental to human health and the environment. Yet Iran's ambassador at the United Nations maintains that Iran's nuclear facilities are "state-of-the-art" and present no "undue risk to the health and safety of their personnel, public, next generations and the environment."

In any case, it's unclear who would be held responsible and shoulder the costs in the case of a nuclear accident. The Russians would likely blame the old German technology; the Germans could be expected to say that they had nothing to do with the plant for more than three decades; and the Iranians could shun responsibility as a nonparty to the Vienna Convention on Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage.

The Iranian government's poor record of anticipatory governance and crisis management is another source of concern. The scale of destruction, morbidity rates, and number of casualties stemming from Iran's natural disasters are unusually high. In December 2003, when an earthquake measuring 6.6 on the Richter scale hit the southeastern city of Bam, more than 26,000 Iranians died, nearly 30,000 were injured, 100,000 were displaced, and 85 percent of the buildings and infrastructure in the city were destroyed. In contrast, a 6.5-magnitude quake that struck San Simeon, California, just a few days earlier resulted in only three fatalities and damaged 40 buildings.

The Iranian government has neglected to address basic questions about its preparedness for a nuclear emergency, including the lack of evacuation drills for Bushehr residents. These problems are rooted in the fact that the media are prohibited from examining the issue and the main governing agency, Iran's Nuclear Regulatory Authority, is not an independent body.

In the absence of a proactively vigilant public and pervasive culture of safety, a rigorous and independent nuclear regulator -- as exists in many other countries such as the United States and Germany -- is vital for prioritizing safety and security over all other interests. The IAEA has encouraged the Iranian government to provide the country's national regulatory body with all authority and resources needed to fulfill its functions independently. To date, there is no evidence that Iran has heeded this recommendation, along with other suggestions such as increasing the quantity and the level of expertise of the body's technical staff members.

As a result of the politicization of Iran's nuclear program, safety concerns have become secondary issues. The Iranian leadership's political drive to demonstrate the ineffectiveness of international sanctions and boast about its technological capabilities has repercussions, such as the insistence on the premature takeover of the Bushehr plant's management by Iranian technicians. Its current Russian operators are slated to run the reactor for only the first two years after its official September 2011 start-up and then are to hand over control to the Iranians. Given that most nuclear accidents around the world have been caused or exacerbated by human error, this lack of training increases the likelihood of a catastrophe. To make matters worse, international sanctions have deprived Iran of international nuclear assistance and have prevented Iranian scientists from participating at safety workshops.

Iran's refusal to adhere to international conventions that define the norms of safety and security in the field of nuclear technology is also troublesome. With Bushehr becoming operational, Iran is the only nuclear power country that is not a signatory to the Convention on Nuclear Safety, which establishes a system of mutual oversight that sets international benchmarks on the siting, design, construction, and operation of reactors.

Nuclear safety concerns should neither be exaggerated nor neglected. But instead of Iran dismissing the warnings, the reverberations that shook the ground in Bushehr should serve as a wake-up call for Iran to improve its nuclear safety standards.

HAMED MALEKPOUR/AFP/Getty Images