Fish, Tourists New Pawns in China Battle Over Taiwan

There is growing suspicion in Taiwan that China is trying to use commercial pressures by cutting back on tourism and fish imports to force the country’s new President, Tsai Ing-wen into acknowledging that Taiwan is a part of China in her May 20 inaugural speech.

The most visible target is Taiwanese-farmed milkfish, or Chanos chanos, a meter-long, easily digestible, protein- and- omega 3 fatty acid-rich delicacy hugely popular in Southeast Asia, particularly the Philippines, where it is called bangus and has been named the national fish, and Taiwan. While the fish, spurned in China because of its enormous number of pin bones, distinctive taste and Chinese name – shi mu yu, unappetizingly translated as “louse eye fish,” might make it a commercial failure, critics believe political considerations are behind the suspension.

Until now, despite the lack of public appeal of the fish on the mainland, China’s Shanghai Fisheries General Corp and Haikui Seafood Group have imported annually 5,000 to 6,000 tonnes of the fish in a deal struck in 2011 to win hearts and minds for the Chinese cause in traditionally China-wary southern Taiwan, where the fish are farmed in Tainan’s Xuejia District. Southern Taiwan is the power base of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party, which Tsai heads.

Although procurement contracts featured strict provisions regarding shape, bone structure, weight and smell, non-compliant milkfish has regularly been shipped across the Taiwan Strait as political considerations muted all complaints by Chinese buyers.

The suspension has been ringing alarm bells in Taiwan. Taiwanese media and pundits believe that China is trying to beginning to use commercial considerations to force Tsai to acknowledge the so-called 1992 Consensus in her inauguration speech. The 1992 Consensus refers to a cryptic doctrine adhered to by China and Taiwan’s outgoing Kuomintang government that spells out that both mainland China and Taiwan belong to China.

“The suspension of milkfish procurement seems the result of the Chinese government heaping pressure on Tsai via the private sector,” Du Yu, a Taiwanese agricultural economics scholar, told Asia Sentinel. “While the suspension won’t greatly affect the overall milkfish sector, it is devastating for the fish farmers in Xuejia, so that all Taiwanese farmers who are like them reliant on the Chinese market are now wondering who the next victim of politics will be.”

The Chinese buyers’ official justification for the suspension has done little to convince the Taiwanese that the move is not political – they say the fish became too expensive after Taiwan’s agricultural output was hit by unusually cold weather at the turn of the year.

“It would have taken the Chinese authorities NT$100-200 million [US$3.088-6.176 million] to compensate for these price fluctuations. Such sums are a bagatelle considering what volumes they kept buying for years without actually selling any,” Du said.

Beijing cuts back on tourism

Taiwan’s tourism sector is also biting nails as Tsai’s inauguration speech draws nearer. On April 7, the country’s Minister of Transportation and Communications, Chen Jian-yu, finally confirmed persistent rumors that the Chinese government is hitting the brakes hard on Taiwan-bound travel by its citizens. Chen said that tour service operators in China told his ministry that Beijing is reducing the number of Chinese visitors by limiting the issuance of travel passes to Taiwan. Chen estimated that the number of Chinese travelers would decrease by 30 percent. The Chinese say they have

That said, Taiwan’s political scientists by and large agree that even though Tsai is obviously being put under considerable pressure, the chances that she will recognize the 1992 Consensus in her inauguration speech are marginal at best. They also believe that heavier Chinese sanctions would most likely backfire.

According to Chen In-Chin, a professor at Taiwan’s National Central University’s Graduate Institute of Law and Government, blatant sanctions against particular sectors of the Taiwanese economy would anger Taiwan’s political middle ground to the benefit of the political fringe. Unlike Tsai’s DPP, the fringe clearly favors a formal declaration of Taiwan guo, the Republic of Taiwan.

“The ordinary people in the political middle will be angrier with China than with Tsai,” Chen said. “Otherwise, they would not have elected her in the first place, as it was quite clear that China would come up with such sanctions,” he added.

Chen believes that stricter sanctions will play into the hands of Japan, which happens to be not only China’s arch rival and Taiwan’s onetime colonial master but also Taiwan’s third-largest export market after China and the US and “the most favorite country” to the Taiwanese public, according to countless public surveys.

“If China starts deliberately harming the Taiwanese economy, Taiwan’s alignment with Japan will only strengthen, making Japan-Taiwan relations even friendlier than they have already been,” Chen said.

Unfortunately, milkfish does not enjoy particular popularity in Japan, either. But, said Du, Taiwan’s milkfish producers would appreciate if the government opens up more international markets and does something for production and the distribution network in Taiwan where 80 percent of the domestically-produced milkfish is sold. The rest is up to the imagination and skills of Taiwan’s crafty biotech sector.

“Biotech research and development should address the milkfish’s two major shortcomings: the many small bones and the earthy flavor,” he said.