Bloomberg - 07 February 2022
Taiwan lifts ban on Fukushima food in push to join trade bloc
ByBetty Hou and Samson Ellis
Taiwan lifted its ban on most food imports from areas around the Fukushima nuclear power plant which melted down in 2011, removing an irritant in the bilateral relationship and making it easier for Japan’s government to support Taiwan joining an Asia-Pacific trade deal.
The decade-old ban on most foods imported from Fukushima and four surrounding prefectures will be lifted from Feb. 18, Taiwan’s government said at a briefing Tuesday. Restrictions will remain on certain food items that carry a greater risk of nuclear radiation, such as mushrooms and the meat of wild animals, Cabinet spokesman Lo Ping-cheng said at a briefing in Taipei.
“The lifting of the Fukushima ban sends a clear message to the world that Taiwan is willing to follow international standards in order to participate in economic and trade cooperation,” Taiwan’s chief trade negotiator John Deng said at the briefing. “This will provide a great push for Taiwan’s efforts to join CPTPP as Singapore and other member countries have expressed their willingness to welcome governments that can accept high standards.”
The government vowed to implement scientific inspections which are more stringent than international standards in an effort to reassure the public the imports will be safe.
Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in an emailed statement that the government welcomed the move as a first step, but would continue to press for removal of the remaining restrictions.
Taiwan halted imports of food products from Fukushima and surrounding prefectures in 2011 over concerns of radiation contamination after the nuclear disaster triggered by the devastating earthquake and tsunami that year.
The food ban has become a domestic political issue in Taiwan. A majority of voters in a 2018 referendum agreed that it should be kept in place, a position supported by the opposition Kuomintang, which says the government is unable to provide unequivocal science-based guarantees about the safety of food imported from the area.
China, South Korea and Taiwan were the only governments that still ban some or all food imports from Fukushima and surrounding areas, according to Japan’s government.
The decision to lift the ban now could cost President Tsai valuable political capital before key regional elections scheduled for November. The move mirrors a previous decision by Tsai to remove restrictions on imports of pork containing trace amounts of the feed additive ractopamine.
That ban effectively blocked imports of pork from the U.S., which called it the biggest impediment to a bilateral free trade agreement. However after it was lifted, imports of pork from the U.S. fell 86% in 2021 compared to the previous year, according to data from Taiwan’s Council of Agriculture, as consumers shied away from it.
Push for International Integration
The lifting of the ban is seen as a key step in gaining Japan’s support for Taiwan to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, a move which could help the island reduce its economic reliance on China. Complicating Taiwan’s bid to join is the fact that China has also applied for entry, leaving member nations with a tough decision between admitting one, both or neither.
Cabinet spokesman Lo was quick to play down hopes of immediate progress in Taiwan’s CPTPP bid however, warning that ending the ban does not necessarily guarantee Taiwan will be accepted into the bloc but rather it is a prerequisite condition for membership. He also said Taipei’s move was not intended to earn Japan’s backing for Taiwan’s entry bid.
Both Taiwan and China are members of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum and the World Trade Organization, but Beijing has said that this isn’t a precedent that means that Taipei can also join the CPTPP. The government of the People’s Republic of China views Taiwan is part of its territory, a claim the authorities in Taipei reject. The government of President Tsai Ing-wen is looking to cultivate additional overseas markets to reduce the mainland’s economic leverage.
Those tensions mean a long and politicized application process is likely, with the members divided between nations like Japan, Australia and Canada pushing for Taiwan’s accession, and Southeast Asian countries keen to remain in China’s good graces, making them vulnerable to pressure from Beijing to thwart Taipei’s bid. In an interview with Bloomberg Television in November, Singapore’s Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said there are “political complications” surrounding Taiwan’s bid.