China has blocked imports from hundreds of Taiwanese food producers and temporarily suspended exports of natural sand to the country in what Taipei perceives as the opening shot in a campaign to punish it economically for a visit by US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Since Monday night, when US and Taiwanese officials confirmed that Pelosi would travel to Taiwan to meet President Tsai Ing-wen on Wednesday, the China Customs Administration has suspended imports of more than 2,000 of about 3,200 food products from Taiwan.
Beijing has a long history of punishing other countries for behaviour it dislikes by cutting them off from its market and has made extensive use of such levers against Taiwan. But analysts and government officials said the move was a huge expansion of such economic warfare.
“In the past, China hit single products from the primary sector such as specific fruit or fish — that way, they kept the overall macroeconomic impact on Taiwan limited but could target regions where the Democratic Progressive party is strong,” said Chiu Chui-cheng, deputy chair of the Mainland Affairs Council, Taiwan’s cabinet-level China policy body.
“But now they are broadening this immensely as they are targeting processed foods, that gives them enormous extortion powers,” Chiu said. “This is probably only the beginning. We are certain that they will further step up their economic coercion measures.”
The imports Beijing has suspended now cover 35 categories including fish and seafood, edible oils, citrus fruits and biscuits and cakes, hitting publicly listed companies such as instant noodle and soy sauce producer Ve Wong and Chi Mei, which makes frozen foods.
China’s customs administration made the import suspension public on its website by displaying “imports suspended” for those Taiwanese companies it said had failed to complete registration under new rules.
In early 2021 China banned Taiwanese pineapples, a move that the Tsai government tackled with a viral campaign marketing the fruit as “freedom pineapples” and “democracy pineapples”, helping to open alternative export markets.
Beijing has also blocked imports of wax apples and custard apples, and this year added grouper to the blacklist.
While China has long been an important export market for agricultural and fisheries products from Taiwan, those shipments total just $200mn a year — a fraction of Taiwan’s overall exports to China.
Taiwan imported 5.7mn metric tons of sand and gravel in 2020, with more than 90 per cent coming from China. Natural sand made up 8 per cent of the total, according to government
statistics. The country has endured sand shortages in times of brisk economic growth, as it has sought to limit sand mining in its rivers to limit damage to the fragile environment.
Taiwanese officials said they were still evaluating the potential damage of the Chinese trade suspensions, but agreed that it would be sizeable.
The Chinese Communist party is extremely hostile towards Tsai’s DPP, which it describes as “Taiwan independence elements” despite the fact that the party supports keeping the status quo in the Taiwan Strait.
The ban could weaken the DPP in local elections due in November, when voters typically focus on local economic, social and environmental issues.
The Taiwanese government said it would help companies complete the registration, but added that it was not hopeful that this would lead to the ban being lifted.