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17th Apr 2021

Japan: Ashton was wrong on China arms ban

  • Typhoon off Japan. Tensions between Japan and China have flared up over the past year (Photo: Nasa)

A recent proposal by EU high representative Catherine Ashton to lift the bloc's arms embargo on China was a "mistake" which caused great "concern" in Japan, a senior Japanese diplomat has said.

The issue is among several priority topics which Japan plans to raise at the upcoming EU-Japan summit on 28 May, together with slow progress in starting free trade talks and Europe's "disproportionate" import restrictions following the accident at the Fukushima nuclear power plant.

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Ashton presented EU leaders with a policy paper at a summit in Brussels last December, in which she described the EU arms embargo with China as a "major impediment for developing stronger" co-operation.

EU members subsequently rejected the proposal to end the EU's ban on the sale of arms to China, put in place following the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. But Japan fears the plan is still sitting on Ashton's desk.

"I don't think she has dropped the idea, that's why we want to strengthen our relationship with the EU. The US understands the danger, as they will be the first in line if something happens in Taiwan," ambassador Norio Maruyama told EUobserver in an interview on Wednesday (18 May).

Japan and the US currently have a close security arrangement, while the US has pledged to defend Taiwan in case of an attack, an island which China claims as its own.

"We have had a lot of bad experiences with the build up of China's military and the opacity of its military budget," Maruyama added. "An end to the arms embargo would be a mistake, it would destabilise the situation in the region."

Sino-Japanese tensions have grown over the past year. A diplomatic row between the two sides erupted last autumn when a Chinese fishing trawler collided with two Japanese patrol boats in waters near uninhabited islands in the East China sea, known as the Diaoyu in China and the Senkaku in Japan.

The islands, which both sides claim to be their sovereign territory, are potentially rich in natural resources.

Fukushima and free trade

Japan's nuclear accident following the devastating earthquake on 11 March and subsequent tsunami will also feature prominently on the agenda of the bilateral EU-Japan summit later this month.

In the weeks that followed, European member states lent assistance to the Japanese rescue operation, while EU leaders inserted a reference to the "potential launch" of trade negotiations in the final statement of their summit on 24-25 March.

Japan would like to see greater progress however, and is perturbed by what it perceives as an excessive list of EU demands prior to the start of talks. "The EU wants Japan to show a sign prior to the negotiations ... but we can not show you all our cards before the game starts," a second Japanese diplomat told this website.

EU trade commissioner Karel De Gucht has said it is normal for a "scoping" exercise to be carried out before the start of free trade talks.

"The condition for starting trade talks with Japan is Japan's willingness to tackle difficult issues that hold back trade - such as non-tariff barriers and restrictions on public purchasing rules," De Gucht said last week.

EU import restrictions on Japanese goods have also raised concerns in Tokyo, where officials fear the reputational damage to Japanese food products could long outlast the return to normal radiation levels.

The EU has identified 12 Japanese prefectures for import restrictions. "Radiation levels in some are indeed higher than normal ... but in others, nothing has changed since the accident," insisted Maruyama.

Remarks by EU energy commissioner Guenther Oettinger in March that Japan was facing an "apocalypse" and was in the "hands of God" also caused consternation in Japan.

"We would like to know what scientific information he based his comments on," the ambassador said.

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