Japan-China relations: as critics cry ‘coercion’ over Fukushima seafood ban, will a WTO complaint do any good?

“If Japan does file a complaint with the WTO, the argument is likely to be that the Chinese claim is unsubstantiated as the radioactivity is below internationally accepted levels for contamination,” said Martin Schulz, chief policy economist at Fujitsu’s Global Market Intelligence Unit.

As the case was “more about politics”, he added, “I don’t think the complaint will have a major impact and solutions will be on other levels.”

A sign stating that the sushi for sale was not made from seafood imported from Japan is seen at a Beijing supermarket on August 24. Photo: Kyodo
Schulz said it was unclear whether Japan would win the WTO’s backing in any dispute settlement, which could take years to complete. There were also no guarantees China would comply with a WTO decision, he added, as it had ignored previous rulings such as the 2016 arbitral ruling invalidating Beijing’s claim to most of the South China Sea.
Japan on Monday said new restrictions on its seafood products were “extremely regrettable” and reiterated its demand that Beijing immediately lift the ban. The Japanese foreign ministry said it had requested discussions with China based on the provisions of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement.

China has described Japan’s plan to gradually release more than 1.25 million tonnes of water from the plant over 30 years as an “irresponsible and selfish act”. On Tuesday, Beijing said the new limits were in accordance with the country’s laws and regulations, as well as WTO guidelines on food safety and other health requirements.

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Schulz said China’s strong reaction showed it was under “tremendous pressure in its confrontation with the United States”, as Japan and South Korea have become more aligned with Washington since last month’s trilateral Camp David summit.
The hardening of that alliance, combined with Washington’s decision to limit exports of sensitive technology to China – notably advanced microchips – has led to trade retaliation against Japan, said Schulz, describing Beijing’s position as “between a power play and signalling”.
Fishery workers at Matsukawaura port in Soma City, Fukushima prefecture, unload seafood caught by trawlers on Friday. Photo: AFP

An opinion piece last week on the website of the hawkish Japan Institute for National Fundamentals accused Kishida of being unprepared for a firm Chinese reaction over the water release and slammed his “lukewarm response” explaining the scientific rationale behind the discharge.

“China’s seafood embargo is not a countermeasure to the release of treated water. Instead, it is politically motivated economic coercion,” said the commentary by Masahiko Hosokawa, a former director general of the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry’s Trade Control Division and now a professor at Meisei University.

“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 says no detectable radioactivity found in sea as protests against Fukushima release continue

Japan says no detectable radioactivity found in sea as protests against Fukushima release continue

Hosokawa proposed countermeasures such as inspections of seafood imports from China where tritium emissions from nuclear power plants are considerably higher, using Japan’s position as this year’s G7 chair to call for support against Chinese coercion, and stepping up diversification of supply chains.

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Economist Schulz, however, cautioned that volatile geopolitical posturing was threatening the bilateral trade relationship.

“Japan understands that the partnership with China is critical, which means that the trilateral meeting that has been arranged for later this year between Japan, China and South Korea is very important to all the parties,” he added.

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