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International relations

Taiwan's #FreedomPineapple campaign gathers pace after China ban

In a few days, pineapple orders surpassed total cross-strait shipments in 2020

Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen attends an event promoting Taiwanese pineapples in Taipei on March 3.   © Reuters

TAIPEI -- China's latest attempt to squeeze Taiwan's economy appears to have run out of juice.

A ban on imports of Taiwanese pineapples announced late last month prompted Taipei into immediate action. The government launched operation #FreedomPineapple to rally support on social media and call on people and companies to buy home grown pineapples.

In just a few days, orders for pineapples -- both domestic and from countries including Japan -- surpassed the total shipped to China last year.

"Remember #Australia's #FreedomWine?" asked Foreign Minister Joseph Wu on Twitter, referring to a campaign last year encouraging people to buy Australian wine after China slapped it with tariffs of more than 200% as Beijing-Canberra ties hit a new low.

"I urge like-minded friends around the globe to stand with #Taiwan & rally behind the #FreedomPineapple," Mr Wu wrote.

The foreign ministry said China's ban on Taiwanese pineapples "flies in the face of rules-based, free and fair trade."

President Tsai Ing-wen urged people to support farmers in Taiwan's tropical south by eating pineapples. She said her government planned to spend an estimated 1 billion New Taiwan dollars (US$36 million) on measures to offset the impact of the ban, including expanding the export market and targeting the U.S., Japan and Singapore.

The government said it is the latest in a series of actions by Beijing aimed at damaging Taiwan's economy and reducing support for Tsai and her ruling Democratic Progressive Party. China claims democratic Taiwan as part of its territory, and would prefer to see the current opposition party in Taiwan, the Beijing-friendly Kuomintang, in power.

Relations between Taipei and Beijing have deteriorated since the China-skeptic Tsai came to power in May 2016.

China has launched a ferocious economic and political campaign to isolate Taiwan. Beijing has lured away more of Taipei's few diplomatic allies, put bans on Chinese individuals getting permits to travel to the island, and suspended the admission of Chinese students to Taiwan.

Beijing has so far refused Taipei's calls to reverse the pineapple decision. It says the ban isn't political but is about pests found in some of the fruit last year. Taiwan says this assertion is disingenuous as 99.79% of its pineapples passed China's customs tests last year.

The targeting of pineapples, rather than all agricultural products or other potential exports, suggests "it's just a political signal" by Beijing, said Drew Thompson, a senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.

"I think it's just going to alienate Taiwan's farmers even further and harden public opinion throughout Taiwan on the challenges, but also the folly, of trying to improve relations with China through trade, because China is so quick to use trade as coercion," he said.

Only about 10% of Taiwan's pineapples are exported, but most go to China. According to Taiwan's Council of Agriculture, the island exported 45,621 tons in 2020, with 97% going to mainland China, 2% to Japan and 1% to Hong Kong.

Vice-President Lai Ching-te said last Monday that orders from Japan, Australia, Singapore, Vietnam, and the Middle East were helping to replace those from China, and "the traveling pineapples are looking forward to their new visas."

On Tuesday, Agricultural Minister Chen Chi-chung announced that domestic orders for pineapples had already surpassed the total sold to China last year, with 41,687 tons of orders placed by the public and companies in four days alone.

By Wednesday, Japan had ordered 5,000 tons, "the highest amount ever," according to a tweet by Lai in Japanese. President Tsai tweeted her thanks to the Japanese people, and urged them to try Taiwanese pineapple as fruits or in forms such as cake.

In recent years, Beijing has been increasing economic, diplomatic, and military pressure on Taiwan, including vastly reducing the number of Chinese tourists to the island before the pandemic.

President Tsai has been trying to cut down Taiwan's economic reliance on China and increase its trade with Southeast Asian countries, India, Australia, and New Zealand. Her administration is also pushing for a free trade agreement with the U.S.

"However, there are limitations to what Taiwan can do," said Ashley Feng, a Washington-based independent analyst who has researched Chinese economic pressure on Taiwan. "China is still Taiwan's largest trading partner and a large and attractive market for many Taiwanese businesspeople."

Diplomatic offices in Taipei have expressed support for Taiwan following China's pineapple ban. The American Institute in Taiwan posted photos on Facebook of pineapples on their premises, including one of a smiling Brent Christensen, the de facto American ambassador, with three large pineapples on his desk. The Canadian office posted a photo of staff with pineapple-topped pizzas, and Britain shared a recipe for a pineapple upside-down cake.

Thompson said that Beijing's consistent economic coercion of not just Taiwan was a "global challenge... and it really needs a global solution."

"It's easy for the U.S. to give rhetorical support, but where's Australia and Sweden and other countries who are victims of this form of economic blackmail?" he said. "The bigger issue here is ... really the international community's unwillingness to stand up and coalesce around illiberal behavior by Beijing in the trade space."

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