by Brian Hioe

Photo Credit: Tsai Ing-wen/Facebook

AFTER MONTHS of speculation, the Tsai administration announced the lifting of a longstanding ban on food imports from the Fukushima, Ibaraki, Tochigi, Gunma, and Chiba prefectures of Japan. The ban lasted for eleven years and was enacted after the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, which took place after the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, as the five provinces were affected by radiation from the ban. 

The Tsai administration likely aimed to lift the ban in the hopes of strengthening trade relations with Japan, particularly with an eye on securing admittance to the CPTPP. Taiwan’s continued ban on food imports from Fukushima, Ibaraki, Tochigi, Gunma, and Chiba prefectures was long a stumbling block to closer economic relations with Japan. The Tsai administration has stressed that the lifting of the ban is not total and does not include wild game or mushrooms and will still involve inspections, however. 

Facebook post by President Tsai Ing-wen on the lifting of the ban

The Tsai administration, then, would be aiming to cement closer economic relations with Japan in the hopes that this increases the political incentive from Japan to defend it from the threat of Chinese military invasion. The same motivation drove the Tsai administration to earlier lift a ban on US pork imports treated with ractopamine, in the hopes of similarly strengthening economic and political relations with the US. This was seen as an obstacle to trade talks aimed at securing a bilateral trade agreement with the US. 

But as with lifting the US pork ban, the Tsai administration would be taking a political risk here. Namely, as recently as 2018, the Taiwanese public voted against lifting the Fukushima food ban. 

Although there were also concerns about food safety from the pan-Green camp, too, as the pro-unification party in Taiwanese politics, the KMT has sought to use the issue to drive a wedge between Taiwan and Japan. The KMT has historically also had a deep animus against Japan going back to the Sino-Japanese War, while the DPP has friendlier relations with Japan in line with a more positive view of the Japanese colonial period among elements of the pan-Green camp. 

Following the Tsai administration’s lifting of the US pork ban, the KMT sought to attack it over the issue. The lifting of the US pork ban was a reversal of course for the KMT and DPP, with the KMT having originally sought to lift the US pork ban during the Ma administration, which was opposed and criticized by Tsai and the DPP. 

Nevertheless, the KMT’s push to vote down lifting the US pork ban was unsuccessful, with the proposal both being voted down and failing to meet the necessary benchmarks to be binding. As such, the Tsai administration was put in a strong position to lift the Fukushima food ban. 

In its press conference on the matter, the Tsai administration cited that Taiwan and China were the last countries to retain bans food from Fukushima, Ibaraki, Tochigi, Gunma, and Chiba, with the US and Israel having lifted bans last year, and Hong Kong and Macau having also eased measures.

It may not be surprising that the KMT has sought to attack the Tsai administration over the issue. Apart from claiming that the Tsai administration was disregarding the democratic will of the Taiwanese people, as reflected in the referendum, the KMT also alleged that Tsai was risking the health of Taiwanese. 

Facebook post by KMT chair Eric Chu on the lifting of the ban

For its part, the Atomic Energy Council has vowed to step up food inspection for radioactivity, so as to reassure the public. The Taipei mayoral administration has suggested that it may continue to enforce bans on food imports from the Fukushima, Ibaraki, Tochigi, Gunma, and Chiba prefectures within certain districts, diverging from the central government in policy much as it did many times during the COVID-19 outbreak that began in Taiwan last May. It is possible that other cities and municipalities controlled by pan-Blue mayors may follow suit. 

It is to be seen whether pan-Blue attacks on Tsai gain ground. At the same time, it is also not impossible that Tsai may come under scrutiny from within her own party regarding what is perceived as part of a series of policy reversals. This includes speaking at the recent opening of a memorial park dedicated to Chiang Ching-kuo, regarding US pork, and with regards to food imports from Fukushima, given that the DPP is strongly associated with an anti-nuclear stance in Taiwanese politics. 

It is a further question as to whether lifting the ban will successfully allow Tsai to push for admittance to the CPTPP. With China having also made a bid to join the CPTPP, membership by Taiwan or China would be mutually exclusive. And the Chinese economy is, of course, many times larger than the Taiwanese economy. 

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