Taiwan curbs US beef imports in latest Asia trade frictions
Health concerns and angry protests have prompted partial bans on US beef imports in Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea – most recently by Taipei on Tuesday. The recurring dispute has strained relations.
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Park Kie-Duck, former president of South Korea's independent Sejong Institute, says anti-US beef protests were led by Web-savvy students who spread fears online. But the issue has resonated more broadly in East Asia because of countries' worry that their traditional agrarian identities are under threat.Skip to next paragraph
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"We see the agricultural industry as a kind of strategic industry, and people want to keep that industry safe," says Mr. Park. "That's why this issue is so sensitive."
In Taiwan, the scale of protests has been smaller, but emotions have also run high. Groceries and beef noodle restaurants have displayed anti-US beef logos.
On Tuesday, a man had the words "The people stand up" and a clenched fist tattooed to his back amid chanting anti-US beef protesters.
In late October, one student filmed himself eating what he claimed was a cow-dung burger in front of the Presidential Office, protesting that it was safer to eat than American beef. (See videoclip here.)
Lin Chong-Pin, a professor of strategic studies at Taiwan's Tamkang University, says resentful legislators from President Ma's own party had seized the beef issue to teach Ma a lesson.
"From Day 1 – Ma's inauguration – they felt they'd been ignored," says Professor Lin. "It's pent-up frustration that's finally found an outlet."
Promises of safety
US officials insist American beef is safe (see their factsheet here). They cite a 2007 World Organization for Animal Health decision, which said the US had appropriate measures in place to assure the safe export of its beef.
But the US has been embarrassed by export violations by its beef producers. Japan relaxed restrictions in 2006, only to renew them after banned bone parts were found in one shipment.
Last October, Japan banned beef imports from one meatpacking plant in Nebraska after banned parts were found in another shipment.
Such incidents have fueled distrust. "The perception is that the Americans are very sensitive to the import of Asian manufactured goods to the US but insensitive to exports of potentially dangerous food goods to Asia," says Doshisha University's Murata.
Washington has linked the beef issue with progress on a South Korea-US free trade deal – now languishing in Congress – and trade liberalization talks with Taiwan.
Those talks have been suspended since 2007, and observers say they may be further postponed over the latest beef controversy.