Taiwan and Allies Rally to Defy China's Economic Coercion on Pineapples

Taiwan's public and its businesses have rallied around the island's pineapple growers who were hit with an indefinite embargo by Chinese customs authorities at the start of their harvest season.

More than 40,000 metric tons of the tropical fruit produced for the Chinese market this year has been "enthusiastically" purchased by local buyers, as well as regional neighbors such as Japan, Taiwan's agriculture minister, Chen Chi-Chung, said Tuesday.

Taipei was given three days notice on Friday when China's General Administration of Customs said it would be suspending pineapple imports from Taiwan beginning March 1, citing the discovery of various mealy bugs on the agricultural products last year.

Taiwan's Council of Agriculture (COA) said it had already dealt with related reports—affecting 13 of 6,200 shipments to China in 2020—and that it had received no further pest complains since Beijing introduced revised import rules last October.

In a Facebook post announcing her administration's plans to address the pineapple surplus, Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen described the last-minute notice as an "ambush" by Beijing. Government officials, including those in her cabinet, have criticized what they see as a political move aimed at the ruling Democratic Progressive Party's traditional voter base of farmers residing in the south.

China accounts for nearly all of Taiwan's pineapple exports, which are roughly 10 percent of the island's annual yield of between 410,000 and 430,000 metric tons, according to COA figures. Last year, more than 41,000 metric tons were delivered to the Chinese market.

The Taiwanese government's plans had been to address a maximum surplus of 50,000 metric tons by exporting 60 percent to countries like Japan, the United States and Singapore, while encouraging the use of locally grown pineapples in processed foods to make up the remaining 40 percent.

After Australian wine, unfair Chinese trade practices are now targeting #Taiwanese 🍍pineapples🍍. But that won’t stop us. Whether in a smoothie, a cake, or freshly cut on a plate, our pineapples always hit the spot. Support our farmers & enjoy delicious Taiwanese fruit! pic.twitter.com/QnVJzyNiDL

— 蔡英文 Tsai Ing-wen (@iingwen) February 26, 2021

But an effective rallying cry, led by Tsai's government and supported by public figures and large corporations, saw a surge in demand for the fruit, said agriculture minister Chen.

He told reporters that by noon on Tuesday—some 96 hours since Beijing's announcement—COA had recorded 41,687 metric tons of pineapple sales, including 5,000 from overseas markets. The figure exceeds the quantity sold to China last year.

Among the countries to react the quickest was Japan, which has some of the world's strictest import standards for food. Orders from the country jumped 62 percent on the first day of the Taiwanese government's pineapple promotion campaign, noted Chen, who predicted exports to Tokyo to reach an unprecedented 5,000 metric tons this year.

The minister said the government was also working on meeting increased demand from Taiwanese citizens residing overseas, including in countries which currently do not allow the import of fresh fruit from the island.

At the press conference, Chen said Beijing's "unilateral" decision to halt pineapple imports was "inconsistent with international trade rules." However, his office would attempt further communication with Chinese customs authorities before considering arbitration through the World Trade Organization, he said.

Chen said he was still waiting for a response to the Taiwanese government's latest attempt to resolve the pineapple impasse, but the export of other agricultural products to China remains unaffected.

Despite the recent success in "turning a crisis into an opportunity," the government was actively developing other markets to avoid an overreliance on one country for exports, the minister said.

The Tsai administration has its eye on 16 overseas markets, including the U.S., which saw Taiwanese fruit imports grow 210 percent between 2019 and 2020, COA figures show.

On Sunday, President Tsai sought to allay fears among pineapple growers in Taiwan's agricultural south during her visit to the city of Kaohsiung. "Don't panic—the government has your back," she told members of the public.

The Tsai administration has pledged 1 billion New Taiwan dollars ($35.8 million) to tackle any shortfall experienced by the island's pineapple industry. It has also vowed to maintain current market prices in order to prevent significant losses to farmers in a buyer's market.

Taiwan President Promotes Island's Pineapple Industry
President Tsai Ing-wen (2nd R) poses with a pineapple in Kaohsiung on February 28, 2021, as she urges members of the public to eat more of the tropical fruit. The Tsai administration's pineapple campaign began two days earlier after China notified the Taiwanese government it would suspend its pineapple imports starting March 1. Presidential Office Taiwan

Meanwhile, Taiwan's foreign ministry has likened China's pineapple ban to restrictions placed on Australian goods last year as part of Beijing's anti-dumping measures, which included tariffs of over 200 percent on Australian wines.

Taipei joined a chorus of other countries calling on the public to support Australia's "freedom wine," and Taiwanese foreign minister Joseph Wu is hoping for similar backing for the island's "freedom pineapple," he wrote on Twitter.

"The ban on #Taiwan pineapples by #China flies in the face of rules-based, free & fair trade. The fruit is of the highest quality & meets the strictest international certification standards. We call on #Beijing to reverse the decision!" said a tweet by Taiwan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Responding to allegations of economic coercion, China's Taiwan Affairs Office said the ban on pineapples was "necessary" in order to safeguard the country's own agricultural products.

The Taiwanese government had "deliberately misrepresented" the issue to discredit China, the office said.

Tsai's guiding economic plan since her first year in office has been her government's "New Southbound Policy," whose goal is to remove reliance on the Chinese market and instead build trading—and security—relationships with partners in South Asia, Southeast Asia and extending as far as Australia and New Zealand.

According to Taiwan's Ministry of Finance, more than 40 percent of the island's exports went to China and Hong Kong last year, accounting for $151.4 billion of its $345.2 billion total exports.