China-Korea-Japan Tensions: How Can Tokyo Fight Unilateral Economic Coercion That Lacks Scientific Ground?

By Takashi HOSODA, Ph.D.

It is well-known that radioactivity is of concern to the international community because it is imperceptible and affects the ecosystem for many generations. However, the measures taken should be neither fear-mongering nor unilateral political decisions but should be scientific, rational, and harmonious with international regulations. 

Recent developments regarding South Korea’s Appropriate Level of Protection (ALOP) recognition and Sanitary and Phytosanitary (SPS) measures are good examples of how the recognition and measures are largely based on political decisions.

South Korea introduced measures to restrict imports of Japanese marine products after the Fukushima Daiichi (Fukushima No.1) nuclear power plant (NPP) accident in 2011, including a total ban on imports of marine products from eight prefectures and expanded additional radiation-test certification of other Japanese food products.

In response, the Japanese government requested the WTO to establish a panel because the content of the South Korean ban was not based on scientific grounds and may amount to arbitrary and unfair discrimination in 2015.

The WTO Appellate Body, in response to the panel’s decision made in 2018, which accepted Japan’s complaint, noted a lack of research on international laws. So, South Korea’s restriction continues, and Japan, while appealing the decision, has not introduced any countermeasures.

When Tokyo announced its basic policy of discharging treated water after diluting it with seawater to less than 1/40th of the Japanese standard (1,500 becquerels per liter), lower than the drinking water quality standard of 10,000 Bq/L set by WHO, to the Pacific Ocean due to the difficulty of storing the water in ground-based tanks after the treatment with Advanced Liquid Processing System (ALPS) to remove radioactive materials except tritium, there were concerns in South Korea about safety and the impact on the fishing industry. Previous Moon Jae-in administration opposed the policy without conducting scientific research.

However, the current Yoon Suk Yeol administration shifted from an anti-Japan tone to a cooperative one for responding to the drastically changing international security environment, and the U.S., Japan, and South Korea declared the Spirit of Camp David that the three countries would strengthen their strategic cooperative relationship by holding high-level consultations, establishing an Indo-Pacific Dialogue, and enhancing cooperation in the security field in August 2023.

It is also important to take measures against the proliferation of false rumors and disinformation, which China, Russia, and North Korea are focusing on.

For example, four people were arrested in South Korea for their involvement in North Korean espionage activities to spread anti-America and anti-Japan disinformation in February 2023. Among them were those who were instructed to spread disinformation on treated water from the Fukushima NPP, such as “the appearance of a monster fish off the coast of Fukushima” and “births of deformed babies” through SNS sites.

Relations with neighbors will be influenced by a variety of factors, including history and rivalry, and the outcome of the Korean parliamentary elections in 2024 would impact bilateral and trilateral relations as well.

However, maintaining pragmatic economic relations to promote further benefit amid destabilizing political relations is an important incentive to prevent negative political influence on bilateral relations, and maintaining and developing cooperation in multilateral mechanisms is also an important means of avoiding such negative impact.

The Chinese SPS measure also shows that the decision is based on political will, not scientific evidence.

The Japanese government announced that on July 4, 2023, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) issued a report on the safety of discharging treated water to the Pacific Ocean, stating that the radiation impact on humans and the environment from TEPCO’s planned discharge of the water into the ocean would be negligible.

In response, the Chinese government strongly opposed the discharge and implemented a total ban on Japanese marine products on August 24, 2023. Furthermore, the governments of Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR) and Macau SAR also banned imports of marine products from nine Japanese prefectures and Tokyo. In addition, Russia announced to take part in China’s restrictions on Japanese marine products in October 2023 until comprehensive information necessary to confirm the safety of marine products is available.

As a result, scallop and sea cucumber farmers, who are highly dependent on exports to China and Hong Kong (more than 55% of Japanese scallops and almost 90% of Japanese sea cucumbers are exported to PRC and Hong Kong), were greatly affected.

In contrast, the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office in Japan distributed processed scallops from Hokkaido at the national day party in October 2023, and at the end of October 2023, the U.S. forces announced its support for the purchase of Japanese marine products.

In particular, the support by Taipei was meant to be a repayment for Japan’s support for the purchase of Taiwanese pineapples when China banned imports of pineapples from Taiwan in 2021.

A state that uses economic coercion as an expression of dissatisfaction or as a punitive measure against another state must not forget the market principle that “if it is good quality, someone else buys, although you do not buy it.”

China’s claims are not based on scientific evidence but on political considerations. This is revealed by the contradictory nature of each of the measures implemented by China.

For example, since the first discharging of the treated water in August, Chinese fishing boats, like Japanese vessels, have continued to fish in the waters east of Hokkaido, which is known as a good fishing ground due to the Kuroshio Current flowing in from off Fukushima prefecture. If the Chinese government is concerned about radioactive contamination, it should ban the distribution in China not only of seafood caught there and landed in Japan, but also of seafood caught by Chinese fishing vessels at the same points. Russian boats are there, too.

Fumio Kishida
File Image: Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida

In addition, if Beijing is truly concerned about ocean pollution from radioactivity, regulations regarding radioactivity in China from its NPPs should be tightened in an equally strict manner Beijing imposed on Japan.

Generally, tritium is released from nuclear power plants, especially heavy water reactors, and the annual amount of tritium dumping from several Chinese NPPs could be 10TBq to 14TBq each, which is six times higher than 22TBq, the annual limit of discharge of Fukushima No.1 NPP to the pacific Ocean.

The total annual amount of dumping tritium from Chinese NPPs would be more than 1,000TBq. There are, however, no reports that regulations regarding tritium release from NPPs in China have been tightened after August 2023.

Since the start of ocean discharge in August 2023, seawater surveys conducted off the coast of Fukushima and other areas have shown that tritium levels are below detectable levels at all sampling sites, proving that the impact of ocean discharge is very low. According to research by Masson et al. (2005) or Fievet et al. (2021), it is academically proven that tritium is not bio-concentrated in living organisms.

Moreover, it is interesting that the regulations on the Chinese side also show a political decision by the Politburo of CPC first and efforts by ministries and bureaucrats to minimize the practical geo-economic impact of the decision. For example, regulations imposed by Hong Kong SAR do not include Hokkaido, Aomori, and Yamaguchi Prefectures, which account for 98% of Japan’s scallop production and 53% of sea cucumber production.

Therefore, Japan should consider filing a complaint with the WTO Panel/ Multi-Party Interim Appeal Arbitration Agreement (MPIA) against China’s arbitrary economic coercion. If Japan files a complaint against China’s seafood embargo with the Panel or MPIA, and China does not agree to it, it will reveal to the international community that China only utilizes rules and mechanisms that are favorable to it.

Moreover, if China does not respect the WTO or MPIA’s conclusion when it decides in line with Japan’s claims, it will specify whether China can become a credible superpower. The outcome of the filing might impact the legitimacy of the current South Korean ban as well.

Based on Japan’s experience, members of ASEAN, which has become one of the important global economic zones, need to be prepared to cope with economic pressures/coercion through participation in multilateral mechanisms and promotion of rules-based order while keeping pragmatic economic interdependence relations.

  • Takashi HOSODA, Ph.D. Assistant Professor, Institute of Intelligence Studies, University of Defence of the Czech Republic