Within the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean, Japan’s controversial release of treated water from the Fukushima nuclear plant is sparking a geopolitical tempest, resonating far beyond its shores. Since the 2011 tsunami wreaked havoc on the Fukushima nuclear plant, over a million tons of treated wastewater have gathered. After years of dialogue and seeking understanding, Japan initiated the discharge on August 24 of this year. Despite endorsement by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the first torrents of treated radioactive water flowing into the Pacific have sparked anxiety and anger domestically as well as globally.

In the heart of East Asia, Japan’s Fukushima wastewater discharge is not merely a matter of environmental consequence; it is a prism through which to analyze the intricate dynamics in the region. This article unravels the layers of this complex issue, exploring China’s vehement accusations, South Korea’s internal divisions, and the broader concerns raised by the Pacific Island nations.

China’s antagonistic response

China’s reaction to the discharge has been assertive. Accusing Japan of disregarding international obligations and using the Pacific as its “private sewer”, China and Hong Kong introduced a total import ban for Japanese seafood. This move is symptomatic of a broader deterioration in Sino-Japanese relations that has been going on for around 15 years. An important turning point was 2010, as this was the first year in which Japanese population growth stagnated and it was foreseeable that China’s GDP would overtake Japan’s the following year. This fostered a threat scenario in Japan that grew in strength and persuasiveness over the years. The election of the nationalist hardliners, Xi Jinping in China and Abe Shinzo in Japan in 2013, added further fuel to the fire, even though there were some diplomatic initiatives towards rapprochement. Both leaders pushed for a build-up of military capacities. Xi aimed to elevate the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to a “world-class military”, while Japan adopted its first National Security Strategy (NSS) ever in 2013 and reinterpreted its pacifist constitution to allow the exercise of collective self-defense, representing a departure from its previous policy of exclusive (self-)defense. In 2022, a new NSS was issued, calling China “the greatest strategic challenge” of our time, along with a five-year-plan to significantly increase the Japanese defense budget.

Another factor contributing to the tensions is the ongoing territorial dispute over the Senkaku Islands (Japanese) / Diaoyu (Chinese) in the East China Sea. This contested island group, suspected to harbor oil and gas reserves and serving as a vital fishing resource, has become a focal point of contention between Japan and China. Given the heavy dependence of both China and Japan on oil and gas imports, these resource deposits are considered essential for ensuring self-reliance, intensifying the competition for control.

These various factors now manifest in China’s response to the Japanese measure, the seafood import ban, which has had notable implications on Sino-Japanese relations. The ban has triggered harassment calls to Japanese businesses and public facilities and anti-Japanese protests in China and South Korea. A study by Scott Moskowitz points out that alongside diplomatic protests and trade restrictions, there was also a targeted misinformation campaign in China, which led to a sharp rise in anti-Japan sentiments.

To address the conflict, Japan initiated public education campaigns and diplomatic talks, attempting to prove the safety of seafood from the Fukushima region. However, the government is also considering challenging the ban at the World Trade Organization. In October 2023, a G7 trade ministers meeting hosted by Japan condemned China’s move, urging it to lift the ban. Also, the United States intervened by purchasing Japanese seafood to counter China’s ban and supply the US military stationed in Japan. Due to the increased consumption of seafood from the region by the Japanese themselves and the US countermeasures, major economic repercussions have so far been avoided.

South Korea’s internal conflict

In South Korea, there was also significant backlash against the proposed measures, albeit from the civilian population rather than the government. A profound historical backdrop amplifies the South Korean internal conflict surrounding Japan’s Fukushima wastewater discharge. Since World War II, the relationship between South Korea and Japan has been fraught with historical animosities. From 1910 to 1945, Korea endured Japanese colonization, where Korean individuals were subjected to forced labor and became victims of sexual exploitation as “comfort women”. These atrocities continue to fuel deep-seated anti-Japanese sentiment in Korea up until today.

The historical wounds resurfacing amid Japan’s current actions create a complex dynamic. While the government, led by President Yoon, currently adopts a more pro-Japanese stance, the broader sentiment within the Korean public remains rooted in the historical grievances. The dichotomy between governmental endorsement and public opposition mirrors the enduring complexities in Korean politics: the relationship with Japan remains a central political question with governments alternating between a positive and negative attitude toward their neighbor. Consequently, President Yoon’s alignment with Japan is met with wide-spread skepticism and protests. However, South Korea also has not eased its restrictive policy on seafood from the Fukushima region that has been in place since 2011.

Global Fallout: Pacific Islands Express Concerns

Strong skepticism also arose among the Pacific Island countries. More recently, Japan has undergone diplomatic efforts to foster relations with the Pacific Island Countries. This endeavor is not only a response to China’s attempts to expand influence in the region, as seen in the bilateral security agreements China signed with the Solomon Islands in 2022 and 2023. The significance of a close relationship with these islands extends beyond economic interests for Japan. In addition to rich fishing grounds and resources of liquefied natural gas, maritime trade routes through the Pacific are pivotal. Recently, with China’s growing influence, the security policy dimension has also gained prominence.

The Fukushima wastewater controversy significantly strains these relations, despite Japan’s extensive dialogue and efforts to portray the initiative as safe. The PICs express particular concern as they have previously suffered from nuclear fallout effects following the US nuclear tests in the Marshall Islands from 1946 to 1958. Therefore, Pacific Island nations continue to voice strong concerns, notably during the recent Pacific Island Forum summit, emphasizing potential contamination threats to the health and security of the “Blue Pacific”

Conclusion: Navigating Troubled Waters

The Fukushima wastewater discharge symbolizes more than an environmental dilemma; it is a microcosm of regional tensions and internal conflicts. As Japan grapples with domestic skepticism and the international backlash, the ongoing repercussions underscore the enduring challenges of managing nuclear legacies in a geopolitically charged world. Despite this, Japan is intensively relying on nuclear power and its expansion to achieve climate neutrality, as evidenced in its new 6th Strategic Energy Plan from 2021. It is gradually reactivating more of the power plants that were shut down in 2011. Recently, legislation regarding the lifespan of reactors has been relaxed, allowing them to operate an additional 20 years without governmental approval. 

On November 17, Xi and Kishida met at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Forum, issuing a joint statement expressing their intent to resolve disputes through dialogue, with expert meetings planned. Nevertheless, China’s decision to withhold payments from the IAEA, citing discontent with its endorsement of the discharge, suggests that tensions are unlikely to subside in the near future. Instead, this issue contributes to the unresolved conflicts in the region, pushing it toward an increasingly uncertain future.

Written by Katja Palaszewski, Edited by Anna-Maria Hirschhuber

Photo Credit: Flickr