By Oki Seima (China Bureau) and Terashima Mayumi (economics section)
The Chinese government’s import restrictions on Japanese food products, started in response to the 2011 TEPCO Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant accident, are still ongoing. There is a complete ban on imports of Japanese fruits and vegetables. It has been pointed out that the China’s claims lack scientific evidence, and China seems to use the easing of restrictions as a diplomatic card against Japan. China’s posture may influence debate over its joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which will go into full swing.
China’s import restrictions were originally applicable to products from 10 prefectures including Fukushima, but all imports of fruits and vegetables, milk, and tea from all prefectures are currently suspended. This is because China has requested and still requests investigation for the presence of strontium as part of the inspection for radioactive substances instead of cesium, the more common practice worldwide. It takes about two weeks to detect strontium, during which time perishables deteriorate, resulting in an effective expansion of the ban.
China has banned imports of Japanese beef for more than 20 years since 2001, when bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) was discovered. Japan has not detected BSE in cattle born after January 2002. The Chinese government continues to regulate Japanese beef even though it is popular in China.
China’s implementation of regulations without scientific evidence has led to rampant smuggling. A ship smuggling about 80 tons of special-grade Japanese beef (worth about 1.2 billion yen) was caught off the coast of Shandong Province at the end of March 2022. According to a Chinese diplomatic source, it is highly likely that Japanese beef is entering China from Cambodia, which was the largest export destination of Japanese beef in 2020 and 2021.
After the TEPCO accident, up to 55 countries or regions instituted regulations on Japanese food products, such as suspension of imports or mandatory inspection certification for radioactive substances. Currently, 14 countries or regions maintain restrictions. Four of them, including China and South Korea, have suspended imports.
In late February 2022, Taiwan lifted the ban on food products from five prefectures, including Fukushima. The UK is also expected to lift import restrictions by the end of June 2022. According to a Japanese government official, these developments are in response to Japan’s urging countries to ease their restrictions by stressing that Japanese food items have been scientifically proven to be safe since they undergo strict inspections for radioactive substances.
The Chinese customs official in charge of import controls continues to be unresponsive and “does not even answer the phone” even if a Japanese official calls for negotiations, according to an expert on Japan-China relations. Of the food from 10 prefectures currently under regulation, only rice from Niigata was exempted, on the condition that certificate of origin be presented, immediately after Prime Minister Abe Shinzo visited China in 2018. It has been pointed out that the Chinese government is easing restrictions incrementally to demonstrate that the summit meetings resulted in easing of restrictions.
Japan and China will mark the 50th anniversary of the normalization of their diplomatic relations in about four months. The expert on Japan-China relations quoted earlier noted that Chinese officials are trying to please their superiors, saying that “Chinese officials attempt to surmise the thinking of high-ranking government officials and not respond to Japan’s call for negotiations” in the current state of frigid relations between the two countries.
China, Taiwan and the U.K. are all aiming to join the TPP. The TPP stipulates that sanitary phytosanitary measures aimed at ensuring food safety should be based on scientific evidence. China, which tends to made decisions on regulations based on politics instead of science, “cannot even come to the starting line for accession negotiations,” said a TPP negotiator. (Abridged)