EDITORIAL China is playing the Fukushima water standoff for its own gain

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China is using Japan’s plan to release treated radioactive water into the Pacific Ocean for political purposes amid its strained relationship with Japan. It is also turning a deaf ear to Tokyo’s assurances.

The issue concerns safety and health, and what is needed is cool-headed dialogue based on scientific knowledge. Beijing’s behavior runs counter to this.

Earlier this month, Chinese customs authorities tightened radiation testing on Japanese seafood exports. The inspection regime has been expanded to include all Japanese marine products shipped to China. Earlier, only samples were inspected.

The customs authorities claim the step is aimed at protecting the safety of consumers. But the measures effectively make it impossible for Japan to export fresh seafood to China because such products cannot stay fresh during a prolonged customs clearance process.

China is opposed to Japan’s plan to discharge radioactive water from the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant. The water would be released after treatment to remove most radioactive content and the rest is diluted with seawater.

The Chinese government has been questioning whether it is possible to monitor effectively the release of treated water over the long term.

But the International Atomic Energy Agency has released a report saying Japan’s plan is “consistent with relevant international safety standards.” Moreover, the IAEA said it will continue monitoring the process at the site.

The Chinese government dismissed the report as being “compiled in haste.” It rejected Tokyo’s proposal to step up communication between Japanese and Chinese experts.

Beijing’s behavior is difficult to understand.

While claiming it is taking a scientific stance toward the matter, the Chinese foreign ministry cited at a news conference an unfounded report alleging that Japan had donated money to the IAEA. That was an extremely thoughtless action.

There is no rational case for tightening radiation testing of Japanese seafood exports before the water is released.

Furthermore, China has been raising the water issue in the diplomatic arena. Senior Chinese government officials have repeatedly raised the issue in meetings with their foreign counterparts.

Beijing went so far as to try to include it in the outcome document released at the conference of foreign ministers including those from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

Japan’s relationship with China is fraught with problems. China has angrily reacted to Japan’s decision to beef up its defense capabilities with a Taiwan crisis in mind. And Tokyo has moved to restrict exports of semiconductor-related products to China, in step with the United States.

It is hard not to suspect that the Chinese government is using the issue of treated water as a way to put pressure on Japan and promote internationally the view that it is Japan that is disrupting the international order.

China has restricted food imports from Japan since the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake. Despite the restrictions, Chinese imports of Japanese seafood have been growing as Japanese food is increasingly popular in China.

Any significant disruption in the imports will deliver a blow to related industries not just in Japan but also in China. It will hurt the interests of Chinese consumers.

It is difficult for Japan to convey its messages to the Chinese public due to the strict controls on free speech imposed by the Chinese government.

However, Japan should avoid the folly of countering China’s tough rhetoric with its own. If Japan allows the dispute to degenerate into a win-lose, zero-sum game, the prospects for a solution will only become even more dismal.

Japan could lose its own credibility with the international community.

The Japanese government should continue tenacious efforts to bring China into a constructive dialogue over the water plan while working harder to offer meticulous assurances about it.

–The Asahi Shimbun, July 21