One of Japan's major challenges in successfully carrying out the release of treated radioactive water from the crippled Fukushima nuclear complex into the Pacific, set to start Thursday, is a diplomatic one as China continues its attempt to politicize the discharge plan.

China is very unlikely to change its position on Japan's water release, part of the power plant's decommissioning work, and may even tighten its restrictions further on Japanese food imports implemented since the complex's nuclear disaster triggered by a massive earthquake and tsunami in 2011, diplomacy experts say.

But experts believe Tokyo needs a cool-headed response to Beijing's opposition, widely seen as a politically motivated action amid their strained bilateral ties, urging Prime Minister Fumio Kishida's government to persistently explain the water release's environmental impact, which a U.N.-backed agency has concluded as negligible, to the international community and gain wider support.

Beijing has aired strong opposition to discharging the water currently stored in tanks to the sea since April 2021 when Japan decided to release it. The water was used to cool down melted nuclear fuel.

A large screen in Beijing shows on Aug. 22, 2023, news regarding Japan's decision to begin discharging treated radioactive water from the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant into the sea later in the week. (Kyodo)


The plant operator, Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc., keeps over 1.3 million tons of treated water at the complex and is running out of storage capacity.

The treated water with trace amounts of tritium will be diluted to one-40th of the concentration permitted under Japanese safety standards before being released via an underwater tunnel 1 kilometer off the power plant.

Tokyo's decision came after the International Atomic Energy Agency concluded that Japan's approach to the treatment and release of the radioactive water is consistent with international standards.

"China has demanded the suspension of water release, but it is unrealistic that China would actually force Japan to stop releasing the water," said Naoko Eto, a professor of political science at Gakushuin University and Japan-China relations expert.

"China may have other intentions" such as using the Fukushima water issue "as a diplomatic tool to discredit Japan," she added.

The two Asian powers are already at odds over a number of issues, including those related to the Tokyo-controlled, Beijing-claimed Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, China's increasing joint military activities with Russia near Japan amid the war in Ukraine, and the self-ruled democratic island of Taiwan, seen by Communist-led China as its territory to be reunified with the mainland.

Japan's ally, the United States, was quick to announce its support of the IAEA conclusion, while the European Union completely lifted its import restrictions on Japanese food products on Aug. 3.

China cast doubt on the U.N. nuclear watchdog's conclusion, saying it "failed to fully reflect views from experts that participated" in the safety review and that its conclusion should not be the "green light" for the discharge of "nuclear-contaminated water."

China has imposed a ban on almost all the food imports from Fukushima and nine other Japanese prefectures and recently began blanket radiation testing for Japanese seafood imports after the IAEA published its report on the water discharge.

Fresh seafood and other products from Japan have reportedly been held up at Chinese customs due to their strengthened inspections.

Beijing raised the issue at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations-related ministerial gatherings in Jakarta in mid-July, urging Indonesia, the 27-member forum's chair this year, to express opposition to the water release plan in the chair statement, according to a diplomatic source.

The chair's statement after the ASEAN Regional Forum made no reference to the matter.

Photo taken from a Kyodo News helicopter shows the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant on Aug. 22, 2023. (Kyodo)

Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi told China's top diplomat Wang Yi that Japan opposes "politicizing" the water release issue when they met on the fringes of the ASEAN talks.

In June, Henry Puna, secretary general of the 18-member Pacific Island Forum, said in a statement, "Our people do not have anything to gain from Japan's plan but have much at risk for generations to come."

China issued a joint statement with the Solomon Islands in July, urging "relevant countries to fulfill their international obligations" and "prudently handle issues such as the discharge of nuclear-contaminated water," when the Pacific state's Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare visited Beijing.

Yumi Iijima, a research fellow at the Japan Institute of International Affairs with expertise in China's environmental diplomacy, said the responses by the Pacific island states might have resulted from China's diplomatic maneuvers.

"Now that it has become difficult for Japan to have science-based communication with China, which has denied the IAEA's review, Japan will have to take measures to prevent other nations from going along with China," she added.

Experts especially warned that China's alleged diplomatic attempts could resonate with opposition parties and public opinion in South Korea, where objections to the Fukushima water release have been deep-seated, even though the government led by President Yoon Suk Yeol has softened its stance toward the issue.

Seoul still maintains its import ban on some Japanese marine products.

Yoon took office in May last year with a pledge of improving the worsened relationship with Japan and places importance on building a closer trilateral security partnership with Tokyo and Washington to address North Korea's nuclear and missile threats.

Not only for Pyongyang but for Beijing, it is "unfavorable" that the three democracies ramp up their collaboration, said Hideki Okuzono, a professor of international relations at the University of Shizuoka.

"Therefore, the (Fukushima water) issue is highly useful for China since it may be possible to drive a wedge into the three-way cooperation" by influencing South Korean public opinion, said Okuzono, well-versed in South Korean politics and diplomacy.

In South Korea, the water discharge plan has become "a tool for political strife" ahead of a quadrennial national parliamentary election scheduled for April 2024, Okuzono said.

If the ruling People Power Party loses to opposition parties at the upcoming election, Yoon's administration will become a lame duck, meaning it is all the more important for Kishida to continue improving relations with Seoul and keep the country's public sentiment toward Japan from deteriorating, he added.

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