The controversy over imports of US beef is a typical example of a storm in a tea cup. Thanks to the government’s neglect of public opinion, inability to implement party discipline and persuade the legislature, what was originally one of many items on the US-Taiwan trade talk agenda has created a backlash and prompted a strongly worded US statement warning Taiwan not to break the agreement. US-Taiwan tensions have now developed into a full-blown political storm.
Taiwan still hasn’t made a final decision on the issue, nor has the US decided how to respond, but the administration of President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) has made several guesses at what the US measures might be. These include delaying a bilateral trade and investment framework agreement, delaying an arms deal and suspending talks about visa exemptions for Republic of China citizens. The situation has caused the government to fear changes to the Taiwan-US strategic relationship.
Although the legislature is planning to amend the Act Governing Food Sanitation (食品衛生管理法) to ban the importation of US beef innards and ground beef, this only makes up a small part of US beef imports. It will have a minor impact on import volumes and value, but could help improve public acceptance of US beef, which is a lot better than possible boycotts and stagnant sales because of quality concerns and consumer fears. The US government should take a hard look at what is the better alternative for US beef farmers.
Although the legal amendment violates the import protocol, thus causing Taiwan to break it, the US response must follow the principle of proportionality. Business is business, and any repercussions should be strictly related to business. The US must not hurt long-term trade and strategic relations lest it hurt not only the Taiwanese public, but also US business interests in Taiwan.
In a recent report, US-Taiwan Business Council president Rupert Hammond-Chambers criticized the US government for what he called their unclear Taiwan policies and for delaying the approval of arms sales to Taiwan. He also warned that if negotiations on a trade and investment framework agreement are not resumed, Taiwan will be pushed toward China.
Government policy is clearly pro-Chinese, with its diplomatic truce, the push for signing an economic cooperation and framework agreement (ECFA) and attempts to initiate cross-strait political talks. This leaves foreign observers with the impression that Taiwan is throwing itself into China’s embrace, but these are only the tendencies of government policy and lack mainstream support.
The Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) did badly in last year’s legislative by-elections and the year-end three-in-one local elections and Ma’s approval ratings remain low at around 30 percent, all clear evidence of a lack of public support for government policy. In addition, many opinion polls show that support for maintaining the “status quo” remains steady at around 70 percent, and even government opinion polls show that opposition to an ECFA is increasing.
All this implies that the public does not approve of such all out pro-China policies. The beef controversy must not be allowed to affect the US-Taiwan alliance and Washington should consider the wisdom of pushing Taiwan, an important strategic bargaining chip for the US, closer toward a China that is about to become a great power.