Taiwan’s government has finally yielded on a long-standing obstacle to a free-trade agreement with the U.S.: American pork and beef.
President Tsai Ing-wen told a briefing Friday that Taiwan would lift restrictions on American pork — by far the market’s most-consumed meat — as well as beef. Despite ending the bans, Tsai said Taiwan and the U.S. still had more work to do to reach an eventual trade deal.
“We know that there is still some way to go between now and signing a trade agreement,” Tsai said. “But prior to trade discussions, we must rationalize trade regulations to the same international standards and open up to other countries for mutual benefit.”
The limits on pork date to 2006, and bar meat containing ractopamine, a drug that promotes leaner livestock. The restrictions on American beef products have been place since 2003, part of a wide effort to block imports from places where cases of mad cow disease have been reported in the past 10 years. The beef measure applies to meat from cattle that are at least 30 months old.
The disagreement over American meat has been one of the rare issues in which Taipei has publicly split with Washington. That Tsai made the announcement personally highlights its significance to her broader efforts to bolster ties with the U.S.
“This move opens the door for even deeper economic and trade cooperation,” U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo said in a tweet. “Kudos to President Tsai for her leadership.”
Taiwan relies on the U.S. to guard against the threat of a Chinese invasion and offset Beijing’s efforts to isolate Taipei on the world stage. While Tsai has secured an unprecedented flurry of diplomatic and security support from the Trump administration, she has so far failed to make progress toward a bilateral trade deal, in part because of the limits on agricultural products.
China has protested U.S. overtures to Taiwan, which it views as part of its territory. Beijing has accused Tsai, who argues that she represents a sovereign nation, of seeking formalize the island’s independence.
The prospect of renewed trade talks with the U.S. comes amid questions over the continuation of a landmark trade deal with China. Under Tsai’s predecessor, Ma Ying-jeou, Taiwan signed the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement with Beijing, cutting tariffs on more than 500 Taiwanese products.
Taiwan’s opposition Kuomintang has repeatedly raised concern China may terminate the agreement on the 10th anniversary of its signing next month. Chinese Commerce Ministry spokesman Gao Feng declined to answer a question about the deal this week, but blamed Tsai’s party for “obstructing and damaging cross-strait interaction and cooperation.”
Cabinet officials in Taipei on Friday downplayed concerns the agreement could come to an end, saying the government had not received any notifications from China indicating it planned to terminate the agreement.
The American Chamber of Commerce in Taipei in June called on President Donald Trump to open talks on a free-trade agreement with Taiwan. In addition to political pressure from China, the paper noted that “Another obstacle to an FTA has been U.S. displeasure with Taiwan’s restrictions on certain U.S. beef and pork products.”
Taiwan was the U.S. 10th largest trade partner last year, according to data cited by the chamber. Even with the ractopamine ban in place, the U.S. was the fourth-largest exporter of pork and pork products to Taiwan in 2018, selling a total of $21 million, compared with almost $70 million for Canada.
“It’s not only affected Taiwan’s trade relationship with the United States,” Tsai said, citing also the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The restrictions on meat led “other countries to harbor doubts and call into question whether we are determined to resolve difficult trade issues,” Tsai said.
Additional obstacles to progress include the looming U.S. presidential election, which is consuming the White House’s attention. The Trump administration would also likely seek to ensure that trade talks with Taiwan don’t cause too much disruption with the U.S.’s existing trade deal with China, a much larger market.
Senior American and Taiwanese officials have held regular trade talks under the bilateral Trade and Investment Framework Agreement from 1995 through 2016. The talks stalled between 2008 and 2012 due to disagreement over U.S. beef exports containing ractopamine, an obstacle that was removed by Taiwanese legislation passed in 2012.