US beef row to gauge how Taipei will handle international pressure

The China Post news staff

The newly designated premier and his team will take office later this week. Among the various issues the new Cabinet will have to deal with, the U.S. beef row will probably be one of the thorniest. The American side is obviously eager to have Taiwan to open its market further to its beef exports, and it remains to be seen how well Taipei can handle the pressure. American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) Chairman Raymond Burghardt has made no secret that the beef row is on the agenda of his current visit in Taiwan. Shortly after the incoming Cabinet lineup was announced, President Ma Ying-jeou met the AIT chief Wednesday, telling his guest that the issue will be handled by the new Cabinet with a “new approach.” Ma did not specify details of the “new approach” but he described current Taipei-Washington ties as at their most friendly in 30 years — a hint that he has no wish to ruin the friendship and that Taiwan is likely to make some form of concession. Taiwan has partially lifted a ban on U.S. beef, but continues to shut the door on organs that are deemed high risk in terms of mad cow disease. And Taiwan also bans beef containing ractopamine, a feed additive that promotes meat leanness and is allowed in the U.S. Washington is pressing Taiwan to change the law to allow ractopamine in meat imports from the U.S., and to lift the ban on cattle organs. The incoming Council of Agriculture Minister Chen Bao-ji has pointed out that it is not just a technical issue about agriculture and food safety. He noted that the U.S. is tying the beef issue to all of Taiwan’s major policies and future development. At stake is Ma’s core platform of improving Taiwan’s economy in the midst of the debt crisis in Europe that has also taken its toll on the nation’s economic growth Having struck the economic cooperation framework agreement with China, Ma has been eager to sign trade pacts with other countries, including the U.S. These trade agreements are seen as necessary to shelter Taiwan from growing competition from its neighbors, such as South Korea and the Southeast Asian countries.

But Washington has suspended talks with Taipei on signing a trade and investment framework agreement (TIFA) after Taiwan rejected ractopamine-containing beef imports from the U.S. in January 2011. Washington is using TIFA as its tool to force Taipei to make concessions on the beef issue. What concessions would Ma make in return for the signing of TIFA with the U.S.? How much of the local consumers’ health and the local farmers’ livelihoods would the president be willing to risk in a trade-off for economic growth? The outcome of the beef issue would serve as an indicator of the values of a government that has been placing strong emphasis on the economy. There are newcomers to the Cabinet, but those ministers handling financial and economic matters have been around for some time — although they may have been reassigned to different positions now. It is a strong signal that the government’s present economic policies will continue, with these financial and economic officials all working to materialize Ma’s platform of economic growth. It may not be wrong to pursue economic growth, but the Ma administration must convince the nation that they would not be paying too high a price. The beef issue will be an indicator of how well Taipei could deal with pressure from Washington. It will also tell us how Taipei could handle pressure from Beijing as it seeks economic growth.