Japan’s plan to release radioactive water into the Pacific has put Taiwan’s government in a bind, caught between standing up for its fishing industry and avoiding a dispute with its northern neighbor.
U.S. President Joe Biden met Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga on Friday, with the two leaders issuing a joint statement that mentioned the Taiwan Strait. The explicit show of support from Japan was the first since 1969 and represents something of a coup for President Tsai Ing-wen.
However, Japan’s decision this week to release more than a million cubic meters of radioactive water from the wrecked Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant into the Pacific Ocean generated opposition in Taiwan and criticism of Tsai’s government for not doing more to stop it. That backlash may strengthen support for Taiwan’s ban on Japanese seafood and farm produce from Fukushima and surrounding prefectures, making it harder for her to improve ties with Japan.
The chairman of Taiwan’s main opposition party, Johnny Chiang, accused Tsai of sacrificing the interests of Taiwan’s fishermen and lamented what he sees as the government’s unwillingness to more forcefully protest the Japanese move. The opposition has long campaigned to maintain Taiwan’s import ban.
A majority of respondents voted in favor of keeping the import restrictions in a 2018 referendum initiated by a senior figure in the party. Tsai’s government is also steeling itself for another food-related political showdown in August over a proposed referendum against her decision to ease import restrictions on U.S. pork and beef.
Japan’s plan to release the radioactive water will complicate the atmosphere surrounding food from Fukushima, said Lai I-chung, president of the Taipei-based Prospect Foundation think tank, but it’s not at the top of Tsai’s agenda right now.
“The government here right now is trying to diffuse the possible political time bomb associated with the plebiscite on the American pork import issue,” he said. “So the issues regarding Japan’s Fukushima food imports won’t be able to be fully discussed until the conclusion of the referendum this August.”
Japan has made no secret of the fact that Taipei must first rescind the ban before it will consider talks about the possibility of Taiwan joining the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, according to the Tsai administration’s chief trade negotiator, John Deng. That’s a key goal for Tsai’s final term in office, and Tokyo’s backing is essential to her aspirations of joining the Japan-led trading bloc.
Tsai’s government, which views Taiwan as an already de facto sovereign nation, has made building out support from democratic allies in the region a crucial part of its efforts to counter rising pressure from Beijing. Japan, as a key trading partner, major economic and military power and a U.S. ally, is a central part of that strategy.
The People’s Liberation Army has steadily ratcheted up the frequency and intensity of its flights close to Taiwan in the past few months to underscore its claim to sovereignty over Taiwan. On Monday, 25 Chinese military planes flew into the southwest section of Taiwan’s air defense identification zone, the largest such incursion this year.
Chinese pressure isn’t limited to military intimidation. Beijing took Taipei by surprise in February by announcing a halt to imports of Taiwanese pineapples. China said the ban was triggered by the discovery of pests in shipments of the fruit, a claim Taiwan’s government rejects, saying the move was intended to hurt support for Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party.
China has a history of using trade to help it achieve its policy goals. It imposed curbs on a string of Australian exports including coal, wine, beef and lobster as relations deteriorated after Canberra barred Huawei Technologies Co. from its 5G network and called for an independent probe into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic.
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