Besides making Taiwan one of the safest places on Earth, the Tsai administration’s adept handling of the COVID-19 crisis has brought additional benefits in the diplomatic sphere. Most notably, Taiwan’s public health achievements in the face of the coronavirus provided the rationale for last month’s visit to Taipei by U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar, the highest ranking American official to step foot in Taiwan since formal diplomatic relations ended four decades ago.
Azar concentrated on health-related matters, thanking Taiwan for its supply of protective equipment to help the U.S. fight the pandemic and signing a Memorandum of Understanding for bilateral cooperation in global health security, infectious disease control, and vaccine development. More broadly, however, the visit was a further indication of the recent trend of steadily closer contacts between the U.S. and Taiwan.
In AmCham Taipei’s annual Taiwan White Paper and on other occasions, the Chamber for years has been urging Washington to send Cabinet-level officials to visit Taiwan more often to help tighten the bilateral relationship. Until now, concern about China’s reaction was a perennial impediment.
Another example of how the political landscape has changed occurred at the end of August when President Tsai Ing-wen announced Taiwan’s intention to ease its restrictions on the import of certain types of U.S. pork and beef. For more than a decade, those policies – banning entry of U.S. pork containing any trace of a leanness-enhancing feed additive called ractopamine as well as some cuts of beef meeting conditions originally imposed in the wake of “mad cow disease” in the U.S. – have been the chief irritant in economic relations between the two trading partners.
American officials have made clear their unwillingness to move forward on major new economic initiatives with Taiwan – such as a Bilateral Trade Agreement (BTA) – as long as those restrictions remain in place. The trade barriers could also be a future issue if Taiwan has the chance to be considered for membership in multilateral agreements.
In her announcement, President Tsai stressed her government’s conviction that lifting the existing pork and beef restrictions would pose no risk to human consumption. She cited studies done by her administration, as well as the international standards for trace amounts of ractopamine that were set in 2012.
But predictably, the move to ease the restrictions met with vehement objections from the opposition political camp and other critics, and President Tsai will need to expend considerable political capital to successfully carry out the change in policy. To her benefit, however, her government’s competent and transparent management of the COVID-19 challenge has given her a reservoir of public support to call upon.
In response to Taiwan’s tackling of these long-neglected, thorny trade issues, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said: “President Tsai’s vision and leadership in removing these longstanding barriers open the door to greater economic and trade cooperation between the United States and Taiwan.”
AmCham Taipei now strongly urges the U.S. government to prepare for engaging Taiwan in negotiations for a BTA. Such an agreement would be to the economic benefit of both sides, and would also support the strategic interests of the U.S. in ensuring a stable Indo-Pacific.