PRC’s trade bans leave bitter taste, spur pushback across Indo-Pacific

PRC’s trade bans leave bitter taste, spur pushback across Indo-Pacific


Indo-Pacific democracies hit with trade bans after calling out the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP’s) bullying and repression are partnering to prove that freedom tastes sweet — just like a pineapple.

In early March 2021, Beijing halted pineapple imports from Taiwan, purportedly over fears that “harmful creatures” could hitch a ride on the fruit to the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Taiwan’s growers sold about 40,000 tons of pineapples to the PRC in 2020, more than 95% of the island’s total exports of the fruit, Bloomberg reported.

The boycott by the world’s second-largest goods importer, which buys an estimated U.S. $1 billion in food and agricultural products annually from Taiwan, further soured relations with its trading partners across the region. Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen called the pineapple ban an “ambush,” and analysts contend the move is a ploy to squeeze the self-governing island of 24 million people, which the PRC claims as its territory.

“Our pineapples are the world’s finest, & we are working to sell them to even more countries … They are sure to put a smile on your face,” Tsai tweeted March 2 alongside a photo of her smiling as she readied to bite into a pineapple chunk.

Social media campaigns sprouted globally under the hashtag #FreedomPineapple, with fruit lovers sharing recipes for everything from pineapple beer to pineapple-infused beef noodle soup. Meanwhile, nations including Australia and Japan placed big orders for Taiwan pineapples, as did domestic retailers and local celebrities, Taiwan’s Central News Agency reported. (Pictured: Agriculture Bank of Taiwan officials attend a news conference in Taipei to promote domestically grown pineapples on March 5, 2021.)

The message was clear: The PRC had bitten off more than it could chew.

“There are more customers asking for Taiwanese pineapples, saying it’s to show their support,” Sau Fan, who works for a Hong Kong fruit wholesaler, told the South China Morning Post newspaper.

Observers say the PRC has long employed its economic might as a tool of coercion, including to punish critics. In 2020, it imposed retaliatory tariffs on Australian products including wine, barley, beef, lobster, coal and timber. Chinese officials cited a range of grievances against Australia, from its condemnation of the CCP’s actions in Hong Kong and Taiwan to its call for an independent review of the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic that first emerged in Wuhan, China.

The PRC is by far Australia’s biggest wine importer, buying about 123 million liters valued at nearly U.S. $1 billion in 2020, according to the Australian Broadcasting Corp.

Australia’s allies and partners throughout the region rallied to its side. “We stand in solidarity with #Australia by serving #FreedomWine,” Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs tweeted, posting a photo of two bottles of wine.

The United States has warned Beijing that its trade actions against Australia are a stumbling block to better U.S.-Sino relations.

“We have made clear that the U.S. is not prepared to improve relations in a bilateral and separate context at the same time that a close and dear ally is being subjected to a form of economic coercion,” Kurt Campbell, Indo-Pacific coordinator for U.S. President Joe Biden, told The Sydney Morning Herald newspaper in March 2021.

“It’s almost an obvious statement of the role of allies and the importance of Australia that we are not going to leave Australia alone on the field,” Campbell said. “It’s not simply Australia that has been the target of these undeclared kind of steps — we’ve seen it in the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Japan and others.”

The PRC’s punitive trade measures may also be backfiring at home. By halting coal imports from Australia just before a particularly harsh winter, the PRC limited supply as demand was rising, driving up domestic prices, Reuters reported in February 2021.

Nor are the wine tariffs giving cheer to retailers and consumers. “Chinese customers chose Australian wines over those from other sources because they can get the same quality at a cheaper price,” Long Guanya, a wine importer in Xiamen, China, told the Australian website “It will have a huge effect on my business, because after these tariffs, the price will be at least three times higher.”