The Referendums are Connected to the Future of Taiwan’s International Trade
(Published in Taiwan December 12, 2021)
From December 8-10, 2021, Taiwan participated in President Joe Biden’s The Summit for Democracy. This event gathers the world’s leading democracies to counter authoritarianism, combat corruption, and promote respect for human rights at home and abroad. Taiwan’s inclusion is a testament to the importance that America places on the extraordinary democratic progress that Taiwan has made since its first democratic presidential election in 1996. Taiwan’s spirited democracy is a crucial factor in its growing global support, and the rights of its citizens to determine their own future.
That said, with democracy comes responsibility. Taiwan’s citizens have the right to elect their own governing officials and to call referendums to decide important issues. The upcoming referendums taking place on December 18, 2021, are of particular importance to the United States, given that it will include a vote on Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen’s August 2020 decision to open the Taiwan market to American pork imports containing trace amounts of ractopamine.
Since 2006, U.S.-Taiwan trade disputes have been dominated by disagreements over agriculture. While in 2020 agriculture made up only 4.21% of bilateral trade between the two countries, the U.S. feels that Taiwan has long reneged on commitments to open its market to beef and pork.
From 2006 to 2021, the U.S.-Taiwan trade relationship has undergone major tensions as a function of these bans on American meat. Annual trade talks have been at times cancelled, and efforts to launch bilateral trade agreement talks have foundered over the failure of Taiwan to follow through on its agreed upon commitments.
Former Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou opened the Taiwan market to American beef with ractopamine almost 10 years ago, and Taiwan has been consuming increasing amounts of it. To date, there has been no identified health issues associated with Taiwan citizens eating this American beef. In the United States and around the world, the meat is consumed in large quantities with global citizens comfortable that it is safe.
It would defy logic if Taiwan were to argue that American pork with ractopamine is unsafe and should be banned, while American beef with ractopamine should be consumed in Taiwan’s restaurants and homes without concern. The conclusion from the U.S. towards this contradictory position is that this isn’t a health issue at all, but a matter of domestic political fighting where American products are unfairly being accused of being something they’re not in order to score political points.
At the same time, Taiwan should also consider whether it wants to be a significant part of the international trade environment or part of the PRC’s economic orbit. A trading powerhouse like Taiwan, with its global leading industries, can no longer sit on the sidelines while others make decisions that impact its citizens and the country’s future. It is imperative that Taiwan has a voice in these discussions and debates to ensure that it is fairly treated by the international economic system. To gain a seat at the international trade table, Taiwan must be seen as a reliable and honest partner that follows through on the international trade commitments that it makes. It’s about trust.
The impact of the upcoming referendum over pork imports will not merely be local. This is a bilateral trade issue, and the U.S. will naturally hold a position and perspective.
The U.S. and Taiwan went through 15 years of strained trade relations over this issue. President Tsai finally took the right step to follow through with the commitment to open Taiwan’s markets, and trade relations shifted in a positive direction. If the people of Taiwan undertake decisions based on political considerations – such as passing the upcoming referendum and reneging on pork liberalization, negatively impacting their country’s relationship with the United States – there are going to be consequences.
I have been the president of USTBC for the past 21 years, including during both KMT and DPP administrations. As with many of Taiwan’s foreign friends, I am not pro-KMT or pro-DPP, I am pro-Taiwan. I want to see closer and more mutually beneficial trade and investment ties between our countries because it draws us closer together. I am deeply concerned about this referendum, and hope Taiwan’s citizens will carefully consider this issue which has long impacted the relationship between our two countries.
Let us go forward together, not backwards apart.