TAIPEI -- With the opposition Democratic Progressive Party set to win Taiwan's presidential elections on Jan. 16, the agricultural community is fretting that a cooling in cross-strait relations could dampen food exports to China, the island's largest trade partner.
China overtook Japan as Taiwan's biggest agricultural export market for the first time in 2013. In the first 10 months of 2015, Taiwan sent 20.5% of its total agricultural exports, worth $834 million, to China, based on numbers from the Council of Agriculture. China has been sending purchasing teams to rural areas of Taiwan, in the apparent hope that business links can sway the support of farmers, who have often been a wary group.
"There is a lot of talk in farming and fishing villages that if the DPP's Tsai Ing-wen wins the presidency next year, it will drive down the sale of farm produce to China," said Du Yu, chief executive of the Chen Li Task Force for Agricultural Reform, a private group of farmers and academics promoting agricultural competitiveness. "It is unlikely that China would immediately reduce procurement, but it will watch keenly what the Tsai government does and could then, if it doesn't like what it sees, make its inspection regimes stricter for Taiwanese agricultural imports."
Key export categories include dragon fruit, pineapples, sugar apples, tea, cultivated grouper and wild Pacific saury.
Farmers' associations in the agricultural counties of Taitung, Hualien, Yilan and Pingtung play down the notion that China would punish Taiwan for a Tsai win. The major farmers' associations recently endorsed Tsai because they see the DPP as being much less likely to sign trade deals that may be detrimental to them. Farmers in Taiwan's south typically back the DPP.
In June, Tsai tried to reassure fruit farmers in the eastern county of Taitung that voting for her would not harm their livelihoods, because "[China's] Taiwan Affairs Office has promised that it will not intervene in the elections."
Fears of fallout
Worries of retaliation are not baseless. Tsai's remarks came after Hsu Wen-hsien, a DPP Taitung township chief, had reminded the public that three months before a 2012 election, Chinese tourists had suddenly stopped arriving at Taitung's renowned hot spring resorts. The city of Kaohsiung also experienced a lull in Chinese tourist traffic after DPP Mayor Chen Chu invited the Dalai Lama and Uighur leader Rebiya Kadeer to visit in 2009; both are vilified by China as ethnic separatists.
City councilors in Tainan believe their constituency has been skipped by China's agricultural buying missions because of DPP Mayor Lai Ching-te's support of Taiwanese independence.
There are also concerns that the ruling Kuomintang, or Nationalist Party, could try to consolidate its pro-China legacy by rushing through a broad new trade pact with China that could hurt local food producers before the new legislature is seated in February. Chen In-chin, a professor of government at National Central University in Taichung, said the KMT may lower barriers to imports of Chinese processed food in exchange for concessions for exports of thin-film transistor liquid-crystal displays.
Such a trade-off would rile local voters. Referring to Chinese processed foods such as peanut sauce and red bean paste, a spokeswoman of Beigan township, a fruit-producing area in Taitung County, said: "Unsafe foreign agricultural products make us sick, and we don't want these imports."
Chen Li Task Force's Du pointed out yet another, albeit more subtle, danger from a DPP election win: China could step up its campaign to acquire agricultural technology and poach talent from Taiwan.
Taiwan used to enjoy a great lead over China in farming know-how. The island was turned into an agricultural base to supply food to the Japanese population and military under colonial rule between 1895 and 1945. Much expertise in elaborated irrigation, seeds, fertilizers and crop reporting systems has been leaked across the Taiwan Strait, according to research by Taiwan's Council of Agriculture.
Said Du: "90% of Taiwan's agricultural IP has been absorbed by China, which is a major problem for the sector's export competitiveness. [China] could even intentionally turn a blind eye to the smuggling of agricultural products into Taiwan to bring down market prices here."
National Central University's Chen points to the example of cimuyu, or milkfish. The government launched sales of the fish to China ahead of the 2012 election, presenting this as a significant political achievement for the benefit of Taiwan's agricultural sector.
"Back then, Taiwan's farmers had high hopes for their milkfish exports; but they have since found out that the Chinese are now breeding it cheaply with their improved techniques and lower wage levels," he said.
The most recent export statistics from the Council of Agriculture suggest that tough times are ahead for Taiwan farm exports should cross-Strait relations worsen. Demand from Japan is unlikely to help, as the weak yen has made Taiwanese exports more expensive. In the January-October period, shipments to Japan decreased 8.5% on the year. Among Taiwan's top five food export markets, China was the only one to see an increase, by 0.4%.
"The 2016 presidential election is bound to affect the future direction of cross-Strait relations, and agriculture and fisheries have always been an important bargaining chip in China's Taiwan policy," said Du. "The new government is well advised to maintain positive cross-Strait relations, because if those turn sour, the first ones to feel it will be the farmers and fishermen."
Jhuang Jheng-syong, a Taitung farmer who grows and exports pineapple sugar apples, or atemoya, said: "I still hope that we will find ways to no longer solely rely on the China market. We have to make Taiwan's superior fruits known to consumers in more countries."