TAIPEI - After voters in Taiwan approved Saturday a referendum to maintain a ban on food imports from five Japanese prefectures, imposed after the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, concern is stirring about the impact of the result on bilateral relations.
About 7.8 million of Taiwan’s 19.76 million eligible voters approved the measure — more than the 25 percent needed to make the outcome valid.
The result immediately prompted speculation about why the referendum had succeeded, and what happens next.
The vote was initiated by the main opposition force, the Nationalist Party (KMT), whose motives were largely political. There is little to indicate the party truly favored continuing restrictions on food products from Fukushima and nearby Ibaraki, Gunma, Tochigi and Chiba, the five prefectures nearest the catastrophe-struck Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant.
Not only did the KMT make little effort to promote the initiative in the run-up to the vote, but the party even once advocated lifting the ban.
Speaking on behalf of his party during a televised debate two weeks ago, KMT legislator Lai Shyh-bao said he was not against relaxing restrictions as long as all food imports from the region pass a zero-tolerance check for radiation. That was the same demand made by the Democratic Progressive Party in 2015, when it was in opposition and looking for ways to embarrass the then ruling KMT.
On that basis, some observers suspect the main motive for the referendum proposal could have been revenge.
As Lai put it, he wants to see the DPP apologize for its policy U-turn — suggesting that if the party had been more reasonable in the past, the Japanese food ban would have been lifted long ago.
Right now the DPP would benefit from an end to the ban, as it seeks to offset worsening relations with China by cultivating closer ties to Japan.
In Tokyo on Monday, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga commented on the outcome of Taiwan’s referendum.
“It’s extremely disappointing that Taiwanese consumers have yet to be fully convinced” about the safety of food products from the five prefectures, the top government spokesman said.
“We will use every opportunity available and keep asking (Taiwan) to lift the ban at an early date,” he added.
Rather than admit their role in allowing the situation to develop, the ruling DPP has read a more nefarious motive into the referendum.
Taiwan’s representative to Japan, Frank Hsieh, has criticized the initiative as “a KMT scheme aimed at undermining bilateral relations between Taiwan and Japan.”
He also warned before the vote that if the referendum was approved, Taiwan would have a “grave price” to pay.
That “grave price” could include Taiwan’s bid to join a Japan-led trade pact, the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership. On numerous occasions, Taiwan has expressed its desire to participate in the second-round of accession talks.
The CPTPP, which currently comprises 11 member states, is on track to come into force by the end of this year and start accession talks with potential new members next year.
Hsieh did not clearly say that the KMT initiated the referendum just to cause trouble for the DPP. But his message was clear: Taiwan needs to maintain close relations with Japan as it seeks ways to protect itself from an increasingly belligerent China.
Despite that, the KMT was able to persuade the Taiwanese public that food products from those five prefectures are unsafe and that the DPP government would be unable ensure their safety were the ban to be lifted.
So now that the referendum has passed, what happens next?
As the referendum is legally binding, the DPP government must honor the result: the comprehensive ban on food products from the five prefectures must remain in place.
Government officials indicated on Sunday that the will of the Taiwanese people would be respected.
Cabinet spokeswoman Kolas Yotaka said the Executive Yuan, as the Cabinet is known in Taiwan, will ask the Ministry of Health and Welfare to continue inspections of imported Japanese food products to ensure public safety.
Hsu Fu, director of the Executive Yuan’s food safety office, said the office respected the referendum result and will work closely with the Ministry of Health and Welfare on the matter.
But the result puts the Tsai administration in a bad spot, after having advocated relaxing the restrictions when that now appears to be impossible.
One potential way out of the impasse would be to hold another referendum, hoping for the opposite result. As the 2020 presidential and legislative elections are approaching, the DPP has time to convince the Taiwanese public that food products from those five Japanese prefectures are safe and that it can ensure their safety.
However, the DPP could again fail to secure voter approval in a second referendum to lift the ban. And no sensible party would want to mount a referendum that not only was uncertain to help it score political points but could significantly harm its reputation, by suggesting party interests were being put ahead of public health, for example.
But there may be another solution.
While the Referendum Act stipulates that the president or government agencies responsible for the ban must “take necessary steps” after a referendum passes, there is no punishment if they do not.
In other words, if President Tsai decided to relax the restrictions of food imports from those five Japanese prefectures, she may have political repercussions to deal with but would suffer no legal consequences, according to lawyer and political analyst Lu Chiu-yuan.