By Arnab Dasgupta
Public diplomacy is increasingly an important part of modern diplomatic strategy in democracies as well as authoritarian regimes, as both seek to secure their legitimacy amongst their citizens. Though an ongoing case, the diplomatic feud that has erupted between the Japanese and Chinese governments regarding Japan’s discharge of treated wastewater from the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactor into the Pacific Ocean in August 2023 offers an interesting study of how both governments have marshalled arguments supporting their stances.
To summarise, the Japanese strategy aims to appeal to scientific authority and accentuates its own tragic history with nuclear power to convince an international audience. On the other hand, China’s strategy portrays Japan’s decision as a unilateral decision that creates a nuclear threat to lives and livelihoods in the region in an attempt to convince a mainly domestic audience.
On 24 August 2023, Japan commenced the release of an initial instalment of treated water used to cool down the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactor into the Pacific Ocean. The reactor, which had melted down in the wake of the catastrophic earthquake and tsunami referred to as the Great East Japan Earthquake (Higashi Nihon Daishinsai) in 2011, was being cooled by seawater pumped in from the ocean. The approximately 350 million litres of water used in the process was then stored in reinforced tanks set up on-site.
However, after nearly a decade, it became clear that there was no more land for storage. As a result, the government of Japan began a process of engagement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to secure permission to release the water into the Pacific Ocean after leaching it of most of its harmful radioactive elements through the Advanced Liquid Processing System (ALPS).1 After the green light was given by the IAEA in July 2023, the government decided to start the disposal by August.
From the outset, a host of countries in the region expressed their disapproval. To mollify them, Japan invited panels of experts from countries like South Korea to visit the plant and ascertain the veracity of Japan’s claims of having treated the wastewater to remove most of the radioactive components. It also held informal consultations with China and Russia on the issue, where the latter countries proposed that Japan release the treated water in an aerosolized manner, instead of pumping it into the ocean.2 These efforts had some effect: the South Korean government officially gave its approval to the wastewater disposal plan, despite significant opposition from citizens.3
However, China remained resolute in its opposition to the plan, pre-emptively declaring a ban on Japanese fisheries. Since the release, China’s opposition to Japan was expressed both through official and unofficial channels, with Chinese Foreign Ministry spokespersons publicly criticizing Japan at press conferences, and stoking protests and acts of vandalism against the Japanese Embassy and Japanese schools in China.
A new form of protest also attracted attention – since August 2023, Tokyo reported over 100,000 cases of prank calls being made from China to various municipalities and businesses around the country, where most callers were recorded using abusive words to address the person on the Japanese side.4 Tokyo in turn escalated its rhetoric against Beijing’s actions, and hinted that it would consider taking China to the World Trade Organisation for what it termed Beijing’s “politically-motivated” attacks.
Both sides have launched spirited diplomatic campaigns for and against the discharge. Japan aggressively promoted its stance and the endorsement its actions from the international community through both traditional and social media channels. On the other hand, China has used international platforms such as the United Nations Security Council to make its case against Japan’s ‘unilateral’ decision.5 It is too early to tell who will ‘win’ in this contest, but it is clear that there are some valuable lessons to be learned from the rhetorical strategies utilised by both sides.
The most prominent rhetorical strategy utilised by Japanese public diplomacy is an appeal to scientific rationality. This is best seen in the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ X (formerly Twitter) feed, where a series of posts on the issue display the two prominent prongs of this strategy. The first prong is encapsulated in the hashtag #LetTheScienceTalk, which implicitly paints opposition to Japan’s actions as an unscientific, and therefore unreasonable stance not supported by ‘facts’ and claims for Japan the scientific ‘high ground’ in line with Enlightenment values of the primacy of reason. The second prong of the strategy consists of the publication of tweets containing IAEA factsheets which convey the safety of the wastewater being discharged.6 This is a more classical appeal to authority, whereby the IAEA, as the agency tasked with monitoring nuclear power facilities around the world, is portrayed as an infallible judge.
Another strategy applied by Japanese public diplomacy consists of the accentuation of Japan’s history with nuclear power. This strategy, while not as prominent as the first one, has nevertheless been adopted by several commentators.7 Again there are two inter-related threads – the reclaiming of Japan’s victim status using the example of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the minimization of the downsides of nuclear power. The first is self-explanatory. As Japan has been a victim of nuclear weapons in the past, it would not wilfully expose other publics to the danger of radioactive contamination, as alleged by its opponents.
The second thread emerges in light of widespread anti-discharge protests organised by anti-nuclear power groups around East Asia, which these commentators view as blind opposition to nuclear power’s role as a viable renewable energy source. These commentators argue (not without reason, as argued below) that Chinese and South Korean opposition to the Fukushima discharge stem from an irrational urge to paint nuclear power as inherently unsafe, thus denying countries (including Japan) the right to energy security, especially as all countries attempt to reduce CO2 emissions as part of net-zero goals. They marshal evidence that shows how nuclear power has been responsible for less deaths per capita than coal or oil, and argue from these premises that nuclear power, while not entirely waste-free, represents the best hope for renewable energy transitions until more radical technologies come to fruition.8
These diplomatic strategies make sense only when we consider the prospective audiences for them, which in Japan’s case is the international community. Japan’s public diplomacy on this issue thus has a pronounced external dimension, as can be seen from the effort it has invested in high-quality translations of the IAEA factsheets and promotional videos posted on social media outlets such as You Tube and X. Even Chinese translations are available, which diplomatic personnel in China have been disseminating using Weibo and WeChat.9 The goal here seems to be to isolate criticism of its actions to a few governments, which, as they are traditional opponents anyway, can be safely disregarded as ‘crying wolf’ over a non-issue.
China’s strategies are moving in parallel, but with inverted objectives. The first strategy utilised by China involves, as mentioned above, the instrumentalisation of the nuclear taboo possessed in equal measure by most educated people around the world. As seen in addresses at the United Nations General Assembly and Security Council, China has consistently attempted to portray Japan’s actions as a nuclear threat, routinely invoking the harmful effects of radiation on human health and the environment.10 Its rationale for the seafood import ban in July applies the same narrative. This strategy is extremely effective as it generates a categorical claim against which no reasoned, scientific counter-claim can operate; after all, no rational actor can argue that citizens of another polity have a duty to consume contaminated foods tainted by radiation.
Another thread of the Chinese narrative concerns the ‘unilateralism’ of Japan’s actions. This thread primarily appears in statements issued by Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokespersons as well as state-backed media publications.11 While accusations of unilateralism seemingly have to do with the purported lack of formal multilateral discussions Japan should have conducted with other stakeholders around the Pacific Ocean rim, they are deeply connected with traditional themes of Japan’s historical culpability for its military aggression in the region since 1937. In this narrative, Japan always oppresses its neighbours through its unilateral actions, which in the past took the form of war, but now takes the form of releasing hazardous materials into the public commons of the ocean, harming the lives and livelihoods of many.
These narratives, some of which are presented in an international context, are not entirely directed at convincing international audiences. Instead, it must be argued that China’s public diplomacy on this issue has as much to do with convincing its domestic audience that the government of President Xi Jinping is capable of standing up to the traditional oppressor in the region. This is best evidenced by the fact that unlike the Japanese, the Chinese have focused their propaganda efforts primarily at domestic social media outlets such as Weibo and WeChat, where morphed pictures of purported ‘victims’ of radiation, as well as recycled footage of other natural disasters in the region are pressed into service to show the ‘effects’ of Japan’s ‘contamination’ of the seas.12 Even the phone call campaign seems to have been coordinated internally in order to drive up participation in a new form of ‘patriotic resistance’ to the wartime invader by engaging in a form of psychological warfare.13 Therefore, though it welcomes the concerned actions of anti-nuclear groups around the world, China is not primarily addressing them; instead, it aims to stoke anti-Japanese feelings among its own people to achieve a ‘rally around the flag’ effect.
It is clear that both countries have achieved some of their aims as a result of their diplomacy. Public concern is at its peak in countries around the region with several Pacific Island states expressing their reservations regarding the discharge. Protests have been stoked within China, and record numbers of people in Japan have expressed their unfavourable views of China. However, the issue has also created an opportunity to restart China-Japan dialogue, though the terms of the same are as yet unclear. It would be instructive to see how both countries manage the outrage among domestic and international audiences, and what compromises they may have to make to do so.
Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Manohar Parrikar IDSA or of the Government of India.
About the author: Dr Arnab Dasgupta is a Research Analyst in the East Asia Centre at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA), New Delhi
Source: This article was published by Manohar Parrikar IDSA
- 1.“Fukushima Daiichi ALPS Treated Water Discharge”, International Atomic Energy Agency.
- 2.Kyodo News, “China and Russia sought vapor release plan for Fukushima water”, The Japan Times, 22 August 2023.
- 3.Kim Tong-Hyung, “South Korea vouches for safety of plans to release Fukushima wastewater but citizens’ fears persist”, Associated Press, 7 July 2023.
- 4.Kiyoshi Takenaka and Martin Quin Pollard, “Japan complains of harassment calls from China over Fukushima water release”, Reuters, 28 August 2023.
- 5.Shi Jingtao, “Fukushima row: China hits out at Japan’s ‘self-serving and irresponsible’ actions at UN Security Council”, South China Morning Post, 26 August 2023.
- 6.For example, see MOFA of Japan’s X channel.
- 7.Anthony M. Hooker, “We need to put low-dose radiation into perspective”, The Japan Times, 6 September 2023; Kuni Miyake, “China’s actions on Japan and religion are cut from the same cloth”, The Japan Times, 30 August 2023.
- 8.David Fickling, “The Fukushima hysteria has a lesson for the nuclear renaissance”, The Japan Times, 24 August 2023.
- 9.As an example, see “什麼是ALPS處理水？” (What is ALPS Treated Water?), Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry.
- 10.See, for example, “Rejecting Multilateralism Risks ‘Sliding Back on a Terrible Trail Tread Before’, First Committee Hears in General Debate”, GA/DIS/3713, United Nations, 6 October 2023.
- 11.“China reiterates firm opposition to Japan’s unilateral decision to discharge nuclear-contaminated water”, CGTN, 5 October 2023; Tong Zhao, “China’s Disinformation Fuels Anger Over Fukushima Water Release”, Commentary, Asia-Pacific Leadership Network, 3 September 2023.
- 12.Zhao, op.cit.
- 13.Miho Tamura and Akiko Yoshinaga, “Crank Callers from China Say They Dialed Japan Just for Kicks or To Kill Time”, The Japan News by the Yomiuri Shimbun, 31 August 2023.