Taiwan voters should look before they leap on pork referendum

FILE PHOTO: A coast guard ship sails at the Port of Taipei in Taipei, Taiwan February 9, 2021. REUTERS/Ann Wang/File Photo
Editor's note:

The people of Taiwan should carefully weigh risks and benefits when deciding whether to reverse President Tsai Ing-wen’s decision to allow pork from the United States to enter Taiwan’s market in an upcoming referendum, writes Ryan Hass. This piece originally appeared in the Taipei Times.

The decision that Taiwan’s voters reach in the December referendum on whether to reverse President Tsai Ing-wen’s decision to allow importation of U.S. pork containing ractopamine could have significant strategic reverberations. The fate of this referendum could go a long way toward determining Taiwan’s trade competitiveness in the coming decade.

It is an unfortunate reality that U.S. trade policy is not well integrated into its foreign policy, and that Washington views Taipei’s approach to U.S. pork as a proxy for Taiwan’s reliability on its trade commitments.

However, if Taiwan voters reverse Tsai’s pledge to open Taiwan’s market to the same pork products that American citizens eat, U.S. trade negotiators will conclude that Taiwan cannot be trusted to follow through on its commitments.

Such a judgment would seal shut the door to anything more than incremental progress on U.S.-Taiwan trade relations for the remainder of President Tsai’s term, and perhaps longer.

If the U.S. deprioritizes its trade agenda with Taiwan, it is likely that other major economies would follow suit. Many other major economies remain cautious about getting out ahead of the United States on Taiwan trade policy, as with other issues.

Some partisans in Taiwan may see political advantage in limiting Tsai’s ability to achieve progress on her trade agenda. It would be costly for voters to reward such callous calculations. The only party that would benefit from a divided and economically undermined Taiwan is Beijing.

Taiwan already is on the outside of regional trade agreements such as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). To keep pace with peer competitors like South Korea and Japan, Taiwan needs to create opportunities for its companies to compete on a more level playing field with the likes of Samsung, SK, and Sharp.

It is too soon to say whether upholding Tsai’s decision on pork could pave the way for Taiwan to secure a bilateral trade agreement with the United States or entry into CPTPP. At a minimum, it would facilitate negotiations on a number of specific issues, such as digital trade.

On the other hand, passage of the referendum could risk locking the door from within to Taiwan’s entry into the emerging regional economic architecture.

Some critics of Tsai’s decision on pork argue that it was a failure because it did not deliver a U.S.-Taiwan trade agreement. Such arguments miss the forest from the trees. The progress that has been made in the development of U.S.-Taiwan relations in the nine months since Tsai’s decision has been extraordinary.

U.S. officials have begun referring to America’s commitment to Taiwan as “rock solid.”

U.S. naval surface vessels and warplanes have provided a constant presence near Taiwan, including following PRC intimidation campaigns. America has made available more than $11 billion in defensive armaments. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has intervened publicly and privately to urge Taiwan’s diplomatic partners not to switch diplomatic recognition.

The Trump administration dispatched its secretary of health and human services to Taiwan following the outbreak of COVID-19.

Both sides signed memoranda of understanding to strengthen collaboration on health and science and technological issues. Both sides launched the U.S.-Taiwan economic prosperity dialogue. The Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA) talks have been relaunched after over five years of dormancy.

President Joe Biden dispatched three trusted former officials to meet with President Tsai shortly after he entered office.

For the first time in over 50 years, the leaders of the United States and Japan underscored the importance of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait in a joint statement following the visit of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga to Washington. Biden and South Korean President Moon Jae-in underscored a similar message during Moon’s visit to Washington.

For the first time ever, the G-7 leaders highlighted Taiwan in their joint communique. A growing chorus of countries registered support for Taiwan’s observer status in the World Health Assembly.

On economic issues, a bipartisan group of 161 members of Congress publicly expressed support for negotiating a bilateral trade agreement with Taiwan. When COVID-19 cases began to spike, the United States sent 2.5 million doses of Moderna vaccine to Taiwan. The State Department’s nominee for assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, Daniel Kritenbrink, has called for strengthening U.S.-Taiwan ties “in every sector.” The U.S.-Taiwan relationship presently enjoys significant momentum. Senior officials in Washington and Taipei are expanding the horizons of their imaginations to advance shared goals.

Looking at the big picture, strengthening U.S.-Taiwan trade ties in various sectors would accelerate structural adjustments in Taiwan’s economy that would strengthen its global competitiveness for decades.

I recognize that Taiwan voters will weigh many factors when deciding how to vote on the referendum on pork. As an American, I am not part of the electorate. As a supporter of strong relations between the people of the United States and Taiwan, I hope Taiwan voters carefully weigh risks and benefits when deciding whether to reverse President Tsai’s decision on allowing pork from the United States to enter Taiwan’s market.