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Fukushima Wastewater Release Roils China-Japan Relations

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Tokyo Report | Diplomacy | East Asia

Fukushima Wastewater Release Roils China-Japan Relations

Beijing has been relentless in its criticism, and both sides have complained of harassment as the controversy grows.

Fukushima Wastewater Release Roils China-Japan Relations
Credit: Depositphotos

On August 24, Japan began releasing treated but still radioactive wastewater from the destroyed Fukushima nuclear power plant into the Pacific Ocean. China’s government strongly criticized the move, demanding that Japan immediately halt the discharge.

“China firmly opposes and strongly condemns” the release, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson said on August 24 in a statement specifically addressing the issue. “We have made serious démarches to Japan and asked it to stop this wrongdoing.”

The statement slammed Japan for committing “an extremely selfish and irresponsible act in disregard of the global public interest.” In particular, the spokesperson accused Japan of having “failed” to prove the accuracy of its data and its assertion that the discharge will not adversely affect either the marine environment or human health.

This is despite Japan’s close consultations with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which conducted its own independent testing that backed Japan’s conclusions about the effectiveness of its treatment process. In July, IAEA chief Rafael Mariano Grossi visited Japan for a final inspection of the Fukushima nuclear plant before the planned release of wastewater. At the time, he emphasized that the release “is not… some strange plan that has been devised only to be applied here… This is, as certified by the IAEA, the general practice that is agreed by and observed in many, many places all over the world.”

China, however, has chosen to disregard the IAEA’s seal of approval and instead made vague claims of impending catastrophe. The Foreign Ministry spokesperson warned that “there could be a man-made secondary disaster to the local people and the whole world if Japan chooses to dump the water into the ocean just to serve Japan’s selfish interests.”

China immediately banned imports of Japanese seafood as the discharge began, saying it had “the right and the responsibility to take legitimate, reasonable and necessary preventative measures to protect marine environment, food safety and people’s health.” Japan is considering bringing a suit against China at the World Trade Organization over the ban.

But the response is not limited to the government level. Within China, a spate of negative media coverage has sparked a reaction from the Chinese public. There were numerous reports on social media of panic buying of salt (despite the fact that nearly all salt sold in China is not sourced from the ocean). Many social media posts expressed extreme anger and voiced intentions to boycott Japanese goods beyond the banned seafood imports.

On August 28, Japan’s Embassy in China issued a statement noting that Japanese institutions had been inundated with harassing phone calls that had been “confirmed” to come from China. Japanese media reports specified that the calls were targeting Fukushima government offices and the Fukushima nuclear power plant operator, TEPCO.

The embassy said that Japanese institutions within China had also faced similar harassment. As reported by the Associated Press, “Acts of harassment including crank phone calls and stone throwing have targeted Japan’s embassy and consulates and Japanese schools in China.”

The embassy expressed both “regret” and “worry” about the trend. Japan’s Foreign Ministry has warned Japanese nationals in China to avoid drawing attention to their nationality amid the increase in harassment and even violence.

The Japanese embassy “strongly urged the Chinese government to prevent the situation from deteriorating further by immediately taking appropriate measures,” including appealing for calm among Chinese citizens and halting the release of “information with no scientific basis.”

Japan’s Prime Minister Kishida Fumio also weighed in, calling the targeting of Japanese nationals and institutions in China “regrettable.” He invited China to join in “joint scientific discussion” on the release.

Japan pursued a similar approach in South Korea, inviting a group of experts to tour the Fukushima nuclear plant and inspect the wastewater treatment process. The South Korean government pronounced itself satisfied with the results, but the public has not followed suit, with mass protests against the release over the past week.

China, meanwhile, has not responded to requests for scientific discussion, Kishida said. China’s Foreign Minister brushed off a question about the prospect, saying only that China would “continue to enhance monitoring… and assess the possible radioactive impact off China’s shores” following the discharge.

When asked about the alleged harassment of Japanese institutions in a press conference on August 28, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin avoided directly addressing the question, aside from a generic claim that “China protects and ensures the safety and lawful rights and interests of foreign nationals in China in accordance with laws.” Instead, he offered a lengthy list of other governments and political parties that have expressed concerns with Japan’s decision as evidence of “legitimate concerns.” He did not offer comment on the at-time violent expression of those “concerns” within China.

Meanwhile, Wang lobbied a counter-accusation at Japan, saying that the Chinese embassy and consulates in Japan had been facing harassing phone calls from Japanese nationals.

On August 29, facing similar questions, Wang was even clearer in blaming Japan for the harassment, saying the wastewater release was the “root cause of the current situation.”

He added, “What Japan should do is immediately correct its wrongdoing and stop discharging the nuclear-contaminated water into the sea, not otherwise.”

The strong government backing makes a case that China’s authorities are at least tacitly backing the harassment campaign. That does not mean, however, that China’s government is directly orchestrating the action. As detailed by Jessica Chen Weiss in her book “Powerful Patriots,” the relationship between nationalistic protests and China’s government is complicated, with authorities alternating between fostering and suppressing protests, depending on the situation.

As one nationalist activist told Chen Weiss, “To speak plainly, the government uses us when it suits their purpose. When it doesn’t suit them, it suppresses us. This way the government can play the public opinion card.”

More recently, China’s government has often masked its use of economic coercion behind the fig leaf of spontaneous popular boycotts, as in the case of China’s restrictions on Korean entertainment and tourism following the deployment of U.S. missile defense batteries in South Korea.

In this case, underlying tensions between China and Japan, and long-standing antipathy stemming from Japan’s brutal invasion of China from 1931-1945, contributed to both the Chinese government and public’s responses. Japan is pursuing a military build-up amid concern about the security threat posed by China, and has been forward-leaning on economic “de-risking.” Beijing views this as a sign that Tokyo is joining U.S. efforts to “contain” China.

However, China’s government has to be careful not to give free rein to anti-Japan sentiment, lest there be negative consequences for China itself. Already, the Chinese fishing industry has complained that it too is being impacted as consumers fret about potential contamination. Thus there are some signs that the government is pumping the brakes.

Manya Koetse of What’s on Weibo noted that there has been “a significant shift in Chinese media narrative” since the discharge began. Now, Koetse wrote, “there’s more focus on reassuring consumers: no need to hoard salt, domestic fish is safe to eat, no need for excessive anxiety, etc.”

In a further sign that China’s government is attempting to keep public sentiment in check, there have not been large-scale protests against the Fukushima wastewater release, something seen in both South Korea and Hong Kong.