While China’s abrupt ban on imports of pineapples from Taiwan is malicious, it is a problem that the government can manage. However, the ban’s real aim might be to test Taiwan’s status in the eyes of US President Joe Biden’s administration.
Beijing cited biosecurity as the reason for its ban, which is to start tomorrow, an untenable assertion, as 99.79 percent of Taiwan’s pineapples exported to China since last year passed customs tests.
The timing is intriguing. The ban was announced just before harvesting is to begin; after Biden ordered a review of supply chains of chips and other strategic materials; and after the administration in the US called for the resumption of dialogue between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait.
By imposing a ban without a definite end, China is telling President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) that Taiwan’s economy can never be decoupled from China’s.
By punishing pineapple growers, Beijing is saying that it can harm the nation’s weakest areas at will.
The response from Taipei was restrained.
Presidential Office spokesman Xavier Chang (張惇涵) only described China’s action as “unfriendly.”
Tsai condemned China — not for its ulterior motive, but for the short notice it gave, which is not normal trade practice.
Premier Su Tseng-chang (蘇貞昌) said that the move was about biosecurity, not politics.
Minister of Foreign Affairs Joseph Wu (吳釗燮) on Twitter called on Beijing to reverse the decision and global friends to rally behind “freedom pineapples,” as they did for “freedom wine” from Australia.
Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) Chairman Johnny Chiang (江啟臣) was joking when he said that there was a silver lining — China had informed Taiwan of its attempt as per a cross-strait agricultural quarantine agreement signed during a KMT administration. Chiang said Tsai should use the agreement to promote cross-strait communication.
While the ban is spiteful, it is not devastating. Among Taiwan’s annual production of 420,000 tonnes of pineapples, only 10 percent is exported.
However, the ban struck a nerve of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which has learned at great cost how shattering the anger of the usually silent agricultural sector can be.
While the DPP used to have strongholds in southern municipalities, it suffered humiliating losses in the 2018 local elections. Several municipalities with large agricultural industries, including Kaohsiung and Changhua, Yunlin and Yilan counties, were won by the KMT, with Han Kuo-yu (韓國瑜) happily playing the role of agricultural sales ambassador until he was recalled as Kaohsiung mayor last year.
The DPP administration attributed the election debacle to its failure to counter disinformation about agricultural policies, which it said was from the KMT.
The DPP has since worked harder to improve communication with farmers, it said.
As the nation is to hold local elections next year, the DPP must be worried that Beijing might expand the ban to other products.
China has been the main destination for Taiwan’s agricultural product exports. Last year, about 28 percent went to China, including Hong Kong, 15 percent to Japan and 13 percent to the US.
Tsai’s administration has reduced the agricultural sector’s reliance on China by exploring opportunities in Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Canada, Russia and elsewhere. Some progress was seen before the COVID-19 pandemic, as agricultural exports to Australia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Saudi Arabia showed year-on-year growth rates of 20 to 33 percent.
However, the government should deliberate what its niches might be in Southeast Asia, as many nations there are major agricultural exporters. Taiwan also needs to improve its cooling logistics if it plans to sell agricultural products to faraway countries.
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