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China flexes economic muscle with ban on Taiwanese grouper

The fish is 4th agricultural product to be sanctioned by Beijing since last year

Taiwan's grouper production last year amounted to 16,940 tons, and the export volume was 6,681 tons, according to Taiwan's Fisheries Department. China accounted for 91% of the exports.   © Getty Images

TAIWAN -- Beijing has banned the import of grouper from Taiwan, making the popular fish the fourth agriculture product to be blocked from entering the Chinese market since last year.

China's General Administration of Customs on Friday announced the suspension from Monday, citing the discovery of malachite green -- a banned chemical used in aquaculture -- being detected in samples.

In 2021, China suspended Taiwanese pineapples, sugar apples and wax apples. Taiwan is not alone in dealing with a Chinese government that is increasingly willing to flex its economic muscles: In recent years, farmers and food producers in Australia, Lithuania and Slovakia have all been hit by import bans.

Some analysts suggest that Beijing is targeting fishermen who support President Tsai Ing-wen's China-skeptic ruling party.

"Banning all imports of groupers simply because a few didn't meet the regulations seems like making a big fuss," said Ian Tsung-yen Chen, an associate professor at National Sun Yat-sen University. He said it was possible there was an element of "political intimidation" from Beijing.

Taiwan's grouper production last year amounted to 16,940 tons, and the export volume was 6,681 tons, according to Taiwan's Fisheries Department. China accounted for 91% of the exports -- about 36% of the overall annual output.

"Groupers aren't overwhelmingly important for Taiwan's agricultural exports, but... [the suspension] has a great impact on specific farmers and fishermen," Chen told Nikkei Asia.

Marcin Jerzewski, a Taipei-based analyst for the European Values Center for Security Policy, said that farmers are politically powerful in Taiwan and other countries affected by Chinese sanctions.

"The production of [Taiwanese] goods recently banned by China, including pineapples, wax apples, and groupers, is concentrated in the southern part of the country, where the electorate has been consistently green-leaning," he said using a term to describe supporters of Tsai's ruling Democratic Progressive Party and other left-leaning groups.

This group of farmers support the DPP, which advocates for maintaining the cross-strait status quo while diversifying Taiwan's international engagement away from China, Jerzewski said.

"Grouper production is concentrated in Pingtung, Kaohsiung, and Tainan, all of which are DPP strongholds," Jerzewski said. "The grouper prohibition is a continuation of China seeking to influence these politically important, green-leaning constituencies in Taiwan via economic statecraft."

A Taiwanese fishing boat set sail to Taiping, Taiwan's sole holding in the disputed Spratly Islands.    © Reuters

Taiwan has reacted angrily. Calling the ban a "surprise," Tsai branded the suspension as "another violation of international trade norms."

"The practice of disposal is to return or destroy the goods on a case-by-case basis, rather than banning imports altogether. China's practice has violated the practice of international trade border inspection," Tsai said on Facebook. Her government on Saturday threatened to take Beijing to the World Trade Organization.

China reported three cases of malachite green in Taiwanese grouper last year. Tsai said that after confirming the safety of the fish and strengthening the management of chemical use, Taiwan responded to those concerns, but Chinese authorities did not follow up or provide further scientific evidence.

Relations are fraught between China and Taiwan, an island democracy that has never been ruled by Communist China. Beijing, which considers Taiwan its own territory, has in recent years scaled up diplomatic and economic pressure, as well as military threats against Tsai's government.

But Pan Chao-min, a professor in the Department of Political Science at Tunghai University, attributed the latest suspension to the incumbent administration's "defensive attitude" toward China, and their unwillingness to proactively communicate with Beijing to mitigate the row.

The Taichung-based academic said, "The most appropriate solution is to resolve the grouper ban politically. Taiwan should be more active in showing goodwill, instead of exporting products to the mainland and scolding the other side."

Part of the problem is Taiwan's dependence on trade with China, resulting in "an asymmetrical cross-strait dependence," he said.

"The biggest problem is that the cross-strait problems are highly sensitive. [Taiwan's] ruling party is accustomed to manipulating the political confrontation between the two sides, and isn't good at solving practical problems. It is the farmers and businesspeople in Taiwan who pay the price," Pan said.

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