Why should we care that Beijing has suspended tariff relief for 12 Taiwanese petrochemical products? The move certainly lacks the fear factor which Chinese military manoeuvres around Taiwan generate – exercises which have become more routine and grander in scale during 2023. Yet China’s economic warfare against Taiwan is just as pernicious. It is also premeditated, with moves on this front aligning with key moments in Taiwan’s political calendar and developments in the country’s relationship with the United States.
By targeting specific products with restrictions and sanctions, Beijing seeks to punish both the Taiwanese people and their government. What’s more, while it seems unlikely to win the hearts of the former, these punitive measures are most certainly designed to focus minds.
Beijing has long used trade as a tool to realise its ultimate cross-strait goal: the subsuming of Taiwan, with its liberal and democratic system, into its communist people’s republic. Sometimes this can involve handing out economic goodies, such as the measures seen in the 21-point plan to integrate Taiwan and Fujian announced in September. However, since the election of the Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) Tsai Ing-wen to the presidency in 2016, these approaches have been overwhelmingly coercive.
China began by curbing the number of its citizens allowed to travel to Taiwan for tourism; then it banned the import of Taiwanese pineapples. Additional restrictions on foodstuffs, from fruit to fish, followed.
Beijing broadened its scope in August 2022 when the then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi travelled to Taipei. Alongside unprecedentedly large military exercises near Taiwan, which included firing missiles over the main island, China’s customs administration suspended imports of an additional 2,000 Taiwanese food products. This handed Beijing, according to Chiu Chui-cheng, Deputy Chair of Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council, ‘enormous extortion powers’.
When Tsai met Pelosi’s successor as speaker, Kevin McCarthy, in California the following April no new bans were imposed.