What you need to know
If the food ban referendum was a strategic maneuver by the KMT, it seems to be working as intended.
By Brian Hioe
It is unsurprising that Taiwan may not be admitted to the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) because of the referendum vote against food imports from Fukushima-affected areas held in late November concurrent with nine-in-one elections. Namely, the issue of food imports is one upon which Taiwan has long been pushed around by larger, more powerful countries, who dangle the threat of being denied admittance to international free trade agreements if Taiwan does not allow food imports.
The administration of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has in the past made allowing food imports from Fukushima-affected areas a condition for stronger diplomatic relations with Japan. This would be part of a more general effort by the Abe administration to promote the prefecture of Fukushima as safe, with concerns that lingering radiation may still cause harmful effects in the region after the 2011 Fukushima disaster. The Abe administration has thus attempted to promote food exports from the area, as well as to encourage tourism to the area.
Concerns over whether food from Fukushima is safe are valid, seeing as this is an issue of contention in Japan itself. Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) is seen as being closely tied to the Japanese nuclear industry, with an unusual willingness to push for nuclear energy in spite of outbreaks of large-scale public protest. There have also been pervasive concerns and allegations that the LDP has been unwilling to provide accurate nuclear assessments for the Fukushima area, or sought to mislead through official statistics.
After the results of the referendum in late November, in which 7,791,856 voted against allowing food imports from Fukushima, the Japanese government initially expressed understanding regarding the results of the referendum, suggesting that not allowing food imports from Fukushima would not be an obstacle for Japan-Taiwan relations going forward. However, this appears to have not entirely been the truth.
Indeed, as the Kuomintang (KMT) was a powerful force behind the push for the referendum, it is likely that the KMT sought to use the issue of food imports from Fukushima-affected areas as a means to not only to attack the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) with the accusation that it was endangering public safety but also to sabotage closer relations between Japan and Taiwan. Apart from the anti-Japanese elements of the KMT’s brands of Chinese nationalism, the KMT is pro-unification and so opposes closer ties between Japan and Taiwan, seeing as Japan could be a powerful regional ally that intercedes on behalf of Taiwan against Chinese incursion.
The CPTPP is a regional free trade agreement that is the form that the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) took on after the United States withdrew from the trade agreement under U.S. President Donald Trump. Despite the fact that the TPP was orchestrated under American auspices as a means to counter growing Chinese influence in the Asia-Pacific region, the Trump administration favored protectionism instead of free trade, seeing free trade as overextending American resources rather than expanding its economic reach.
Japan subsequently became the dominant power among former TPP signatories, continuing to push for the agreement because it was still beneficial to Asia-Pacific nations to economically integrate as a regional bloc against the threat of China.
This would not be the first time that food imports have been used as a condition of Taiwan’s admittance to or denial from the TPP framework. America previously made allowing American beef imports into Taiwan into a condition of Taiwan’s possible entrance into the TPP, seeing as there were in concerns in Taiwan that the use of the hormone ractopamine – banned in most of the world’s countries, but not in America – was unsafe. This, too, was a valid concern regarding food safety, but the KMT was perhaps interested in the issue because it hoped to use this as a wedge issue to sabotage relations between Taiwan and the U.S.
Now that Japan is the primary driving force behind the CPTPP, as the renewed version of the TPP, food imports from Fukushima-affected areas have taken priority as the issue which would determine Taiwan’s admittance or non-admittance to the CPTPP. As free trade agreements are more generally a way for large, powerful countries to coerce smaller, weaker countries into relations of economic subordination, this would be nothing surprising.
More generally, free trade agreements have also long been held over the heads of Taiwanese voters in order to influence how they vote, as observed in the examples of the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement or the Cross-Strait Services Trade Agreement under the administration of former Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九).
But in light of the issue of food imports from Fukushima-affected areas being a contested issue in Taiwan, it remains to be seen whether the CPTPP will become a significant wedge issue in Taiwanese politics going forward.
The News Lens has been authorized to repost this article. The original post was published on New Bloom here.
Editor: Nick Aspinwall (@Nick1Aspinwall)
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