After China imposed an import suspension on two types of Taiwanese fruit last week, Taiwanese officials warned of challenging this decision at the WTO. This challenge could simply be raising the issue in a WTO Committee, but if it turns into a formal dispute, it would be the first WTO case between China and Taiwan.

On September 18, China’s Customs agency announced (link in Chinese) that it would suspend imports of sugar apples (also known as custard apples) and wax apples from Taiwan, because planococcus minor, a type of pest, has been detected in imports of these products. The suspension took effect on September 20.

Zhu Fenglian, a spokesperson for the Taiwan Affairs Office of the State Council, said that the “decision was made to protect agricultural production and ecological security” in the mainland and that the “mainland had informed Taiwan of the pest problems.”

In response to Beijing’s announcement, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen stated (link in Chinese) on Facebook:

Regarding China's sudden announced suspension of importing Taiwanese sugar apple and wax apple, we believe that China's practice has violated international trade rules. In addition to stern condemnation, we will support all the measures taken by the Council of Agriculture of the Executive Yuan to protect our agriculture and farmers.

Taiwanese Foreign Minister Joseph Wu tweeted that China was now “weaponizing trade”, which “violates international trade norms” and should cast doubt over its accession to the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership. China just submitted its application to join the CPTPP last week.

Taiwan's Council of Agriculture Minister Chen Chi-chung also criticized (link in Chinese) China for taking action unilaterally without providing scientific evidence. According to Taiwan media (link in Chinese), Chen said Taiwan has requested technical consultations with China and if China does not respond by September 30, Taiwan will bring a WTO challenge.

The spokesperson of Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party also said (link in Chinese) that China’s ban is not in compliance with international economic and trade norms, nor is it supported by the facts.

Chung Chia-pin, Member of the Legislative Yuan from the Democratic Progressive Party, acknowledged (link in Chinese) that Taiwanese farmers know that the Chinese market "has a way to go” because the quality control is relatively loose, and therefore the farmers do not always take inspections as seriously for exports to China. In contrast, farmers are more rigorous with the quality of their exports to the Japanese and EU markets because these regions are known for being notoriously strict with quarantine inspections, Chuang said. (In March, Japan recalled some Taiwanese bananas due to excessive levels of fungicides.) Chuang and other Democratic Progressive Party members have called for diversifying the sales of Taiwanese fruit to reduce any risk of depending on one particular market.

Chiang Chi-chen, Minority Leader of the Legislative Yuan and the Chairman of the Kuomintang, proposed (link in Chinese) several ways to solve the dispute, including sending an expert group to the mainland to learn about the inspection results of agricultural products; establish a cross-strait non-governmental communication mechanism; negotiate with relevant parties in the mainland to establish a third-party inspection agency.

According to data from Taiwan's Council of Agriculture, mainland China takes up 95 to 97 percent of Taiwan’s exports of sugar apples and wax apples.

The pest involved here, planococcus minor, has been included in China’s Catalogue of Quarantine Pests for Import Plants (link in Chinese) since 2007. “Planococcus minor is a pest of more than 250 host plants, and can harm tropical and subtropical fruits as well as crops. Once introduced and colonized, the pest could create serious economic damage across the fruit industry,” according to a Global Times report. This is also one of the three pests reportedly detected in Taiwanese pineapples, which resulted in Beijing’s import suspension on these pineapples in February. In a statement designed to dismiss any negative impact of Beijing’s import bans on Taiwan’s agriculture, Tsai Ing-wen said (link in Chinese) that the pineapple sales to areas outside of China this year have not only been stable, but have gone up by 566% between January and August compared to the same period last year. Because Taiwan does not plan to sell pineapples to the mainland next year, the pineapple ban will not be part of the WTO complaint, Chen said.