After pineapples, wax apples and custard apples, China turned its eye to Taiwanese grouper, slapping an import ban on the fish without warning. Some China analysts believe that Beijing is using the embargo to drive a wedge between the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and fishing communities in southern Taiwan to split the pan-green camp.
Domestic collaborators have been working hand-in-glove with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) regime to assist its cognitive warfare tactics. Talking heads have suggested that Taiwan’s aquatic and agricultural products would not have been subject to a ban unless there were quality problems, conveniently ignoring that Beijing has provided not a scintilla of evidence to justify its latest embargo.
The ban on grouper imports appears to be part of a wider strategy by Beijing to influence November’s local elections. Taiwanese should expect further interventions by Beijing as the elections draw nearer.
The grouper embargo is unique in that it is the first time Beijing has banned an item on the cross-strait Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement’s (ECFA) “early harvest” list of agricultural products. With Taiwanese grouper exports highly reliant on the Chinese market, grouper farmers have become ensnared in a trap set by the CCP and are being used as pawns by Beijing to influence Taiwanese politics. Government officials believe the grouper ban is just the beginning and is being dangled in front of the electorate as an implicit threat ahead of the local elections to weaken DPP electoral strongholds.
The ECFA was signed by the administration of then-president Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) in 2010. At the time, Ma brushed away concerns, saying: “Cross-strait commerce is a huge market, why would [the other side] want to damage it?”
However, it soon became apparent that the ECFA was a political device designed to box Taiwan into a “one China” trap.
The Economist dubbed the former president “Ma the bumbler” in an article published in 2012 for naively believing that drawing Taiwan closer to China economically would reduce political tensions between the two sides. In so doing, Ma showed that he was utterly ignorant of the basic tenets of Marxist theory.
The ECFA contained no protections for Taiwanese fishers and farmers, and the so-called “early harvest” list was intended to provide the CCP with a shortlist of markets that would be ripe for coercion.
Moreover, Beijing used trade as a facade to steal Taiwanese agricultural technology.
Any concessions or benefits conferred to Taiwan under the deal were CCP “united front” tactics: All Beijing had to do was wait and see which producers took the bait.
The logic of the CCP’s “united front” tactics is to lure Taiwanese producers with economic benefits and make targeted industries increasingly dependent on the Chinese market. The more dependent they become, the harder it is for individual producers and industries to extricate themselves from the trap.
The year after the ECFA was signed, Beijing began to enthusiastically promote a cross-strait service trade agreement. Normally, bilateral economic agreements prioritize trade in commodities above that of services.
However, Beijing flew in the face of conventional wisdom for good reason: Its plan was to increase the flow of human capital by means of a dedicated service trade agreement to rapidly infiltrate every corner of Taiwanese society. The Ma administration was a willing participant in the scheme.
After the agreement was signed by the Ma administration in 2013 — although it was not ratified by the Legislative Yuan — economists warned that it incorporated practically all of Taiwan’s service industries, including food and beverage, hospitality, apparel and travel, encompassing nearly every aspect of Taiwanese life from cradle to grave. While the agreement would allow Taiwanese businesses access to China’s market, the scope of their activities would be restricted by Beijing.
If the attempt by the Ma administration to force the agreement through the legislature had not been thwarted by the Sunflower movement, aside from agricultural products such as groupers, pineapples and custard apples, many service industries would have also been placed on the chopping block and manipulated by Beijing for political means.
At the time, the CCP and the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) spoke about “seizing a historical opportunity.”
However, their excessive haste and opaque negotiations raised suspicions and put the electorate on guard. Fortunately, the Sunflower movement exposed the malign intentions of the CCP and put a stop to the agreement. If it had been ratified by the Legislative Yuan, it would have allowed Beijing to manipulate Taiwan’s service industry, and an influx of Chinese nationals working in Taiwan would have made it harder for the nation to stand firm in the face of Chinese authoritarianism.
The spread of COVID-19 from China’s Wuhan at the beginning of 2020 coincided with the Lunar New Year holiday period. At the time, many foreign organizations predicted that Taiwan would bear the brunt of the epidemic given its proximity to China. If the agreement had been ratified, the increased flow of people across the Taiwan Strait would have prevented the government from taking pre-emptive measures, and turned Taiwan into a disaster area, just as Wuhan was.
Taiwan, like other democratic nations, abides by international rules, whereas the CCP regime always seeks to exploit the rules-based order and even destroy it. Beijing employs a number of methods to attack Taiwan’s rules-based democracy. The grouper ban illustrates this.
Beijing placed a ban on Taiwanese grouper out of the blue, then claimed that customs officials had detected traces of COVID-19 on packaging materials. Not only did the Chinese authorities provide no evidence to back up this claim, no international organization has reported a single instance of a person becoming infected with COVID-19 after coming into contact with “contaminated packaging.” Based on this spurious claim, China issued its temporary ban.
China has employed similar arbitrary import bans against other countries as a form of punishment. Perhaps the most egregious example of this is Australia, whose government the CCP sought to punish for calling for an international investigation into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic. Beijing used a combination of import bans and tariffs to enact revenge.
China has also tried to punish Lithuania for seeking closer ties with Taiwan by introducing arbitrary customs restrictions on its goods and pressuring multinational corporations to pull out of the Lithuanian market.
However, the Lithuanian government refused to cower to Chinese coercion.
Taipei has responded to the economic threat posed by China by reducing the nation’s economic dependence on the Chinese market, accelerating the internationalization of its economy and restructuring its supply chains. Many other nations around the world are following suit.
Taiwanese should be in no doubt: The price of integrating Taiwan’s economy with China’s is nothing short of eventual political surrender. Faced with the never-ending threat of random trade reprisals and economic coercion from China, Taiwan has no option but to continue the internationalization of its economy.
While some Taiwanese companies made short-term profits under the ECFA, they injudiciously tied themselves to the market of an authoritarian aggressor. Having drunk poison to quench their thirst, these companies are now jumping on the last train out of China. For many companies, a retreat from China will be an arduous journey fraught with difficulty.
The proposed cross-strait service trade agreement provided the wake-up call that Taiwan needed. The vast majority of Taiwanese treasure their democracy and are determined to protect it.
The CCP is notorious for its use of economic coercion in all four corners of the globe; Taiwan is by no means its only victim. Taiwanese businesses must rally behind the government. The nation can leverage its industrial advantage to build a strong economic foundation and seek trade agreements with major democracies. This is the path toward long-term, sustainable economic development that will protect Taiwan’s democracy and guarantee national security.
Translated by Edward Jones
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