Taiwan eyes opportunity to leapfrog China in race to join trade pact

Yomiuri Shimbun file photo
Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen

TAIPEI ? Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen’s decision to lift the ban on imports of food products from Fukushima and four other prefectures appears to be aimed at getting ahead of China in procedures to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). China applied to join the pact at around the same time as Taipei.

The import ban had been a longstanding issue between Japan and Taiwan.

At a press conference Tuesday, Deng Chen-chung, a minister of Taiwan’s Executive Yuan, said: “Taiwan has shown we can accept the high-level standards of the TPP. This measure will be a big help in joining the trade agreement.”

The pact requires member countries to take measures to secure food safety based on scientific evidence. As the safety of foods produced in the five prefectures has been scientifically proven, some on the Japanese side argued that Taiwan’s import ban did not meet the criteria for membership in the pact.

On Tuesday, Tsai posted messages in Japanese on Twitter, saying “Japan is a trustworthy friend and important trade partner,” and “We hope to work closely together to achieve results.” The tweets appear to reflect expectations that the lifting of the ban will help to strengthen economic ties with Japan.

Taiwan applied to join the trade agreement in September last year, six days after China had submitted its application, creating a situation in which Beijing and Taipei are vying for membership.

Participation in the TPP requires the consent of all member countries. If China joins first, vehement opposition to Taiwan’s membership is almost guaranteed.

Last year, Deng expressed caution about the risk for Taiwan if Beijing got the nod ahead of Taipei.

Taiwan’s latest move helps it get one step ahead of China in the eyes of Japan because China continues to impose import bans on all foods produced in 10 prefectures, including Tokyo, Fukushima and Niigata, with the exception of rice cultivated in Niigata Prefecture.

Courtesy of Taiwan’s Executive Yuan
Ministers of Taiwan’s Executive Yuan announce the lifting of a ban on imports of foods from five Japanese prefectures, including Fukushima Prefecture, in Taipei on Tuesday.

Taiwan is heavily reliant on trade, and the Tsai administration regards joining the TPP as a pillar of its economic growth strategy.

In December last year, Taipei’s Economic Affairs Ministry reported to the Legislative Yuan that the administration could “expand the scale of imports and exports and promote economic growth” by joining the pact.

It is not easy for Taiwan to sign free trade agreements with other countries, partly because of China’s influential power.

Taiwan was unable to join the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, which went into effect in January this year and which comprises Japan, China, South Korea and member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

Improved ties

The fundamentally good relations between Japan and Taiwan might have also encouraged Taipei to lift the import ban.

According to a survey conducted by the Taiwanese Public Opinion Foundation in January, 38.8% of respondents supported the lifting of the ban and 54.6% opposed it. Compared to about five years ago, support rose by about 20 percentage points and opposition fell by about 22 points.

The foundation cited Japan’s assistance to Taiwan with COVID-19 vaccines as a factor in the opinion shift.

China wary of decision

By Seima Oki / Yomiuri Shimbun Correspondent

BEIJING ? China’s Foreign Ministry implicitly criticized Taiwan’s decision to lift its import ban on foods from the five Japanese prefectures at a press conference Tuesday.

Zhao Lijian, deputy director general of the ministry’s Department of Information, said, “The actions of the authorities of the Democratic Progressive Party [the Tsai administration] regarding health and safety issues will not fool the eyes of the people of Taiwan.”

China is wary that Taiwan will use the lifting of the import ban as leverage to accelerate its push to join the TPP.

Beijing is likely to increase its efforts to lobby members of the pact, hoping to avoid a situation in which Taiwan gets accepted before China.

On Feb. 5, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang told Singapore President Halimah Yacob that Beijing wants communication with the TPP member nation regarding pact membership.

However, the hurdles remain high for China, which would need to change its policy of excessive preferential treatment for state-owned enterprises and data protectionism that keeps data within its borders.