1 of 3 | Kuomintang party supporters attend a rally on the eve of Taiwan's referendum in Taipei on Friday. Photo by Ritchie B. Tongo/EPA-EFE
Dec. 17 (UPI) -- Taiwan will head to the polls on Saturday for a contentious vote on whether to accept pork imports from the United States, a key trade issue that could have far-reaching consequences for Taipei's relationship with Washington and its standing on the global stage.
The vote, one of four referendum questions on the day, will decide whether to reimpose a ban on pork that contains ractopamine, a feed additive that promotes leanness and is used in some U.S. meat.
Last year, President Tsai Ing-wen lifted the restriction, which long has been a stumbling block in forging a free-trade agreement between the United States and Taiwan.
Analysts say a reversal by voters could imperil future talks at a time when Washington is pursuing closer ties with Taipei in the face of an increasingly assertive Beijing.
"The outcome of the referendum will be closely watched in Washington," said Ryan Hass, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
"If Taiwan voters reverse the decision to open their market to U.S. pork imports and choose protectionism over scientifically determined safety standards, it could cast a cold shadow over hopes for making major progress in U.S.-Taiwan trade and economic relations for the remainder of President Tsai's term," Hass told UPI.
Ractopamine is banned by China and the European Union, but is used in American, Canadian and Mexican feedlots and accepted by other countries, including Japan and South Korea. In 2012, a United Nations food safety board issued guidelines for safe trace levels of the additive in beef and pork.
Taiwan's Beijing-friendly opposition party, the Kuomintang, introduced the referendum question and is urging voters to reject what it has called unsafe and "toxic" pork.
President Tsai and her majority Democratic Progressive Party, however, have framed the issue around Taiwan's urgent need to solidify international partnerships at a time when Beijing is intensifying military provocations and is working to further isolate Taipei diplomatically.
China opposes Taiwan entering into any official treaties or international organizations and considers the island a breakaway province under its "One China" policy.
The pork referendum "is not a problem of food safety, but a trade issue and economic problem," Tsai wrote on Facebook on Wednesday.
In addition to jeopardizing a U.S. free trade pact, Tsai said that the pork ban also would hinder Taiwan's efforts to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, a bloc of 11 countries, including Japan, Australia and Singapore. Taiwan officially applied for CPTPP membership in September.
"If we change our U.S. pork import policy after the referendum, it will be interpreted by other countries as instability in Taiwan's foreign trade policy," she wrote.
"Taiwan's road to expanding our international space is bumpier than other countries because we have a neighbor who is working hard to block us from the world and restrict Taiwan's survival," Tsai added.
"We can't let the referendum disguise the issue and cause Taiwan's economy to become more dependent on China."
Taipei only maintains official diplomatic relations with 14 countries, but economic partnerships and trade agreements can help keep Taiwan as a viable member of the international community, said Lai I-Chung, president of Taipei-based Prospect Foundation think tank and former foreign policy chief of the Democratic Progressive Party.
"[Trade deals] will be an economic confidence booster not just for Taiwan, but also for the global community," Lai said. "It's important for people to have confidence in the survivability of Taiwan as a state. We can still exist with the rest of the world through economic, cultural, social cooperation."
The ractopamine issue has been a highly charged one in Taiwan, with street protests over the dangers of the chemical additive and strong opposition to lifting the import ban from the country's pork farmers, who produce around 90% of the domestic supply.
After Tsai announced the plan to ease import restrictions in November 2020, lawmakers brawled and threw pig intestines in parliament.
Tsai's supporters point out that Taiwan has allowed beef with ractopamine since 2012, a decision made by the then-ruling KMT, and they say that labeling laws clearly identify products containing the additive, making it easy for consumers to avoid.
However, opinion polls show the referendum is likely to pass. A survey released Wednesday by Taiwanese network TVBS found 46% in favor of reinstating the ban and 37% against it -- although the pollster noted that support had dropped from 55% just the week before.
Saturday's referendums also include questions about moving a planned liquefied natural gas plant away from a protected coral reef and whether to resume building a nuclear power plant.
The pro-China KMT is framing the votes as a judgment on Tsai and the DPP, and it appears they may have found some emotionally charged issues to land political blows after being trounced in 2020 elections.
"It may be a clever political strategy by the KMT," Lai said. "But it has unfortunate international consequences for Taiwan."