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[Speaking Out] Japanese Seafood Embargo by China: A Strategic Response

China says its ban on Japanese seafood is about Fukushima Daiichi, but facts say it's economic coercion. Japan's strategic response should include these points.

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Wang Wenbin, Deputy Spokesperson of China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, holds a press conference in Beijing on August 22, the day Japan announced it would release treated water from August 24. (©Kyodo)

China has announced an import ban on seafood from Japan. One month ago, I proposed Japan take countermeasures to China's blanket inspections of Japanese seafood in this Speaking Out column. Nevertheless, the Kishida administration failed to take any such measures. Instead, it released treated water from Tokyo Electric Power's Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station into the ocean.

I was surprised to hear that both Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries Minister Tetsuro Nomura commented on the Chinese action as "unexpected." The comment exposed the Kishida government's lack of crisis management. 

As usual, the government has taken a simple diplomatic action. That involves explaining the scientific rationality of the treated water release and demanding China's withdrawal of the embargo. Such a lukewarm response is hardly expected to make a breakthrough.

China's seafood embargo is not a countermeasure to the release of treated water. Instead, it is politically motivated economic coercion. If it fails to address the matter effectively, Japan will be seen as easy pickings. That will encourage China to replicate its economic coercion in other areas. 

Japan needs to take action to deter such a situation. The very foundation of the nation's economic security is called into question.

A seafood market in Beijing struggles after TEPCO's Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant started releasing treated water into the sea. It is said that Chinese seafood and sales are deteriorating. (©Sankei, Photo by Shohei Mitsuka)

Five Actions that Japan Should Take

I propose the following five-point action package for Japan to deploy in its strategic diplomacy:

(1) Inspect Seafood from China

Inspect all seafood from China. Why? Because tritium emissions from Chinese nuclear power plants are more than five times higher than treated water from the Fukushima Daiichi Power Station. Such blanket inspections will help the dissemination of information within China.

(2) Use the WTO

File a petition with the World Trade Organization. Moreover, there is precedent. In 2020, Australia filed a petition with the WTO against China. It targeted China's imposition of additional tariffs on barley, wine, and other imports from Australia in response to Australia's request for an independent investigation into the cause of the COVID-19 outbreak. A petition with the WTO will be an important card for a future diplomatic deal.

A perplexed Japanese restaurant owner holds a smartphone displaying incoming calls from China that conveyed the message, "Don't come here again..." On August 28 in Fukushima City (© Sankei by Nobuo Serizawa)

(3) Engage Other G7 Countries

Take up the Chinese action as this year's chair of the Group of Seven (G7). It is an appropriate topic for the Coordination Platform on Economic Coercion as agreed at a G7 summit in May. In this, Japan should request other G7 members' support for the exploration of alternative markets for Japanese seafood.

(4) Diversify Supply Chains Outside of China

Move faDcilities for the processing of Japanese scallops out of China. Also, expeditiously develop scallop supply chains that do not depend on China. Massive quantities of Japanese scallops have been exported to the United States after processing such as unshelling in China. That is where labor costs are low. Additionally, the reduction of dependence on China will affect employment in China Therefore, Japan can also launch this action to help keep China in check.

(5) Publicly Point Out China's Contradictions

Exploit contradictory Chinese actions. Those include tritium emissions from Chinese nuclear power plants. Also included are acts such as Chinese fishing boats' massive capture of saury in waters off northeastern Japan. Bringing public attention to these actions would be an effective counter to China's information war. Moreover, it will reach both Chinese consumers and the international audience.

These Chinese newspapers all published articles criticizing Japan for its diplomacy and security stance, as well as the release of treated water from TEPCO Daiichi Nuclear Power Station into the sea. (©Kyodo)

A Chinese Diplomatic Card?

We should also learn the purpose behind China's manipulation of opinion on the Fukushima Daiichi Power Station treated water release. For example, China calls it nuclear-contaminated water to stir up public opinion against Japan in China. It also takes unreasonably forceful retaliatory action knowing Japan is not expected to stop the ocean release.

Moreover, we can glimpse China's intention to use the embargo as a diplomatic card. That is likely to be used in bargaining over semiconductor trade restrictions that represent China's Achilles' heel. It is also the main battlefield of the US-China confrontation. 

This is a time when Japan and China have been arranging a bilateral leaders' meeting on the sidelines of international conferences in September. Under the circumstances, Japan should do more than a single-track diplomacy asking China to withdraw its embargo.

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(A version of this article was first published by the Japan Institute for National Fundamentals. Find it in Speaking Out #1065 in Japanese on August 28 and in English on August 29, 2023.)

Author: Masahiko Hosokawa 

Masahiko Hosokawa is a professor at Meisei University and a former director-general of the Trade Control Department at Japan's Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry. He is also a Planning Committee member at the Japan Institute for National Fundamentals.