by Brian Hioe

Photo Credit: bangdoll/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

TRADE TENSIONS continue between Taiwan and China in the wake of China’s grouper ban last month. China moved to ban Taiwanese grouper, claiming that it had found oxytetracycline and other prohibited chemicals in excessive amounts in grouper imports from Taiwan. For its part, the Taiwanese government has denied this, calling on China to provide proof for its claims. 

What proves of further note, however, is that in the wake of the grouper ban, China claims to have found traces of COVID-19 on the packaging of food items from Taiwan. Such allegations took place over the last month.

China claimed to have found COVID-19 traces on frozen ribbonfish and horse mackerel. Subsequently, Macau, which is controlled by China, claimed to have found traces of COVID-19 on Taiwanese mangoes. 

With regard to such incidents, the Taiwanese government has called on China to provide proof of this, with criticisms of China’s claims that COVID-19 can circulate on frozen food packaging. China has not been able to provide proof, as it usually destroyed them, rather than preserved them for further testing. 

However, such claims about the circulation of COVID-19 because of its spread on frozen food packaging have been a refrain from China. China began asserting that COVID-19 can spread this way as part of claims that COVID-19 originated from outside of China, so as to deflect international blame for being the origin of COVID-19. 

Photo credit: bryanjs/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

With the claim that COVID-19 has been found on Taiwanese food products, this seems to be an attempt to depict Taiwan as having let COVID-19 go out of control. Such claims take place at a time in which Taiwan, after all, is pivoting away from a COVID-zero approach and instead towards a COVID-management strategy, while China has sought to retain a COVID-zero approach. Nevertheless, with China hit by further waves of COVID-19, the attempt to depict Taiwan as having a failed COVID-19 strategy may not be as effective going forward. 

Unlike the grouper ban, the claims of COVID-19 traces found on Taiwanese mangoes, horse mackerel, and ribbonfish did not lead to industry-wide bans. Instead, the Chinese government temporarily suspended food imports from the companies whose food products it claimed were infected in this way. It is probable that China cannot so easily shut out entire food categories, but finds it easier to target individual companies. 

Namely, the Chinese government has been accused of attempting to politically pressure Taiwan through bans of food products in recent years, usually claiming to have found issues with food safety. Products that China has blocked in the past include not only grouper, but China blocking pineapple, wax apple, and custard apple. 

One notes that these food items are all high-end products with symbolic value, which may be why China targeted them. China may also be hoping to influence Taiwanese farmers, an influential pressure group in Taiwan. Taiwanese farmers have historically favored the pan-Blue camp, due to fears that if they support the DPP, they will be shut out from the agricultural associations that they rely on to distribute their goods, or the irrigation associations that provide the water they use for their plants. Both types of organizations have historically been controlled by KMT clientelist networks, though the DPP has made moves to try and break the KMT’s stranglehold on Taiwanese farmers in recent years by nationalizing such institutions. 

To this extent, Taiwanese farmers see the Chinese market as a promising one for their goods, given its size, and the Chinese government may be hoping to use this to cultivate them as a domestic pressure group. 

In response to such actions by China, the Taiwanese government has suggested that it might file a suit against China in the World Trade Organization, though this also has risks if China decides to file counterclaims against Taiwan. In response to the bans, the Tsai administration has also sought to drum up support for affected Taiwanese farmers from the public. Nevertheless, it is also possible that Taiwanese farmers will become increasingly conscious of the political risks of reliance on the Chinese market in the future, and seek to pivot toward other markets. This remains to be seen. 

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