The unfortunate reality of Taiwanese politics

Tuesday, June 12, 2012
The China Post news staff

As the U.S. beef issue is scheduled to go through the Legislature for voting today, tensions have risen between the ruling Kuomintang (KMT) and the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).

The ruling Kuomintang (KMT) has instructed its party legislators to vote unanimously on the passing of the U.S. beef-related amendment draft to the Act Governing Food Sanitation (食品衛生管理法) or face party disciplinary measures, which includes at least a fine of NT$30,000, the KMT party caucus announced on June 7.

Meanwhile, the DPP plans on exercising its filibuster strategies. In the past, in order to prevent a disfavored act from going through the voting process, DPP legislators have locked Legislative Speaker Wang Jin-pyng out of the meeting room, spit on legislators holding different opinions, and some even went to the extent of literally eating up the draft that was to be voted on.

DPP legislators yesterday took over the legislative speaker's podium, holding posters and shouting their protests aloud. DPP legislators have begun camping out at the Legislative Yuan to demonstrate their resolution on disagreeing with the U.S. beef amendment. The event will last for a total of 120 hours.

Both the KMT and DPP have been holding their respective predictable positions by the political game book. President Ma Ying-jeou and the KMT emphasize on the potential benefits of importing U.S. beef, while the DPP stands firm against the government's policy, arguing that ractopamine-containing beef is detrimental to the health of the Taiwanese people.

It is understandable why the DPP have taken such extreme measures, given their minority status in the Legislature. Backed up by worries over the safety of the leanness enhancer (widely in use in U.S. cattle feeds), the DPP have chosen to take the most direct route by attracting attention and stalling the voting process in an effort to prevent the voting from happening at all.

It is also logical for the KMT to insist on passing the amendment, mostly for the betterment of Taiwan's competitiveness. The U.S. has made it clear that the long-suspended U.S.-Taiwan Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA) talks can only be resumed if the U.S. beef issue is resolved, which has direct bearing on the possibility of Taiwan taking part in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) in the future.

U.S. beef has in fact never been a major part of U.S.-Taiwan trade. According to statistics from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA), imports of American beef to Taiwan only accounts for 0.5 percent of total U.S. imports to the country annually. In October 2009, U.S. beef imports were valued at US$114 million (NT$3.39 billion). While Taiwanese people have the option of not consuming U.S. beef, rejecting the importation altogether could result in an overall dismissal in the resumption of TIFA talks and would interrupt Taiwan's potential participation in the TPP, possibly risking trillions of dollars in future international trade talks.

In addition, as a member of the World Trade Organization, it is necessary that Taiwan follows the fair trade agreement regulated by the WTO — Taiwan cannot halt imports from the U.S. single-handedly unless U.S. beef contains health-threatening elements exceeding a certain threshold. Given the fact that the U.S.-South Korea FTA has been established, Taiwan needs to follow international regulations and get on with trade talks with other nations.

It is very possible that if the two parties, i.e. KMT and DPP, were to switch places, an opposition KMT would be criticizing a DPP government for trying to convince the electorate of the necessity of importing U.S. beef. In fact, something similar did happen during the Chen Shui-bian administration. The U.S. beef debate reveals the sad fact of Taiwanese democracy — both parties follow the principle of winning elections at all costs.

The Taiwanese people are governed by a government that cannot articulate its policy, while the opposition party blockades government policies merely for opposition's sake. If the KMT is serious about its pledge of protecting people's health, it should start outlining its plans to monitor and label U.S. beef. In turn, the DPP should be proposing feasible political alternatives to the opening of beef imports in order to improve U.S.-Taiwan relations, instead of merely blockading the legislative process if they are serious about their pledge. The people are now facing a choice between a food additive that might be detrimental to their health, and a future that is likely to prove fatal for their country. The Taiwanese people deserve more choices.

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