While officials now tell us that the feed additive ractopamine contained in some US beef does not pose a health risk, the longstanding controversy over its import into Taiwan could, if mishandled, poison relations between Taipei and Washington.
Fundamentally, the problem lies with special interest groups in Taiwan and the US. In Taiwan, those who oppose lifting the ban on US beef containing ractopamine residue have adopted a policy that seeks to protect the domestic meat industry. Protectionism is every bit as important as health considerations in this dispute — witness the legislators and activists who have made this issue their own, but have nothing to say about the proven nefarious effects of cigarettes, or motor vehicle pollution.
As for the US, its policy on the matter is alimented by a lobby that seeks to maximize the export of meat products. It is also an election year, which tends to make policymakers more receptive to such pressures.
Although the beef controversy should be treated as an isolated trade spat between two countries, there has been a tendency on both sides to politicize the matter by tying it to other elements of the relationship. As a result, if the situation is not handled with political deftness, it could damage relations between Taipei and its most important ally.
In Taiwan, there is an underlying anti--Americanism to the opposition to US beef imports and some of the protesters who took to the streets in protest — including Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) legislators — do little to hide their feelings. Indeed, one suspects that there are some within the DPP who have taken up this cause more as a means to get even with Washington for its perceived meddling in the Jan. 14 presidential election.
While Taiwanese have every right to decide what does and does not end up on their dinner plates, it would be a mistake to regard US insistence on exporting its beef products, or Taipei’s acquiescence, as a sign of US imperialism.
Equally unpalatable is the attempt by some on the US side to link the US beef issue to other policy initiatives, such as negotiations on the Taiwan-US Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA). The political and economic ramifications of the agreement for Taiwan cannot be emphasized enough, if only because it would provide a key counterbalance to the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) signed by Taipei and Beijing in June 2010.
Holding TIFA talks hostage until the beef issue is resolved comes close to blackmail, which is not conducive to friendly relations. It is, however, very close to how Beijing approaches negotiations with Taipei.
Both sides must be willing to compromise, while making sure that whatever decision is ultimately made does not undermine other aspects of their bilateral relationship.
Taiwan stands to gain nothing, but could lose a great deal, if the US beef dispute becomes a rallying point for anti-Americanism (for cynical politicians who seek rapprochement with Beijing at the expense of relations with Washington, such an outcome would be like manna from Heaven). Who knows what would happen to US security guarantees or arms sales to Taiwan if things reached such a point.
Cool heads must prevail, particularly as there is already a certain degree of apprehension over the level of US commitment to Taiwan.