In the days leading up to last Friday's presidential inauguration ceremony in Taiwan, turtle eggs and pineapples hogged the front pages of the island nation's newspapers and airwaves. Chinese customs officials have become suddenly concerned about residual pesticides on pineapples exported by Taiwan . Buyers of Taiwanese turtle eggs are also dialling down their orders.
Given this fresh examples of the collateral damage caused by jittery cross-straits relations, its not surprising Taiwanese exporters, media commentators and politicians are increasingly worried that Beijing will use its considerable economic leverage to hurt the pro-independence, new Taiwanese government.
The country's new president is also clearly focused on matters economic. While much of the analysis on President Tsai Ying-wen's inauguration speech focused on how the new government will treat the '1992 Consensus', which stipulates both sides stick to the legal fiction of one China, the economic agenda was the subject of the first part of that speech. It is clearly the chief focus of the new administration.
This is in keeping with the views of the country's voters. According to a survey conducted by Taiwan Brain Trust, a pro-independence think tank with a close relationship to the new government, 62.9% of Taiwanese rank the economy as the top priority. Just 5.9% think managing the cross-Straits relationship should be the new government's main focus. Voters, particularly young Taiwanese, are concerned, like their counterparts elsewhere, about jobs and house prices. It seems the Clintonian maxim of 'it's the economy, stupid' also applies in Taiwan.
Dr Tsai's economic policy is centred on three themes: participating in regional economic free trade agreements; fostering more innovation; and encouraging more sustainable development. Like everything else in Taiwan, the one inescapable factor that will affect the success of all these laudable aims is China.
Taiwan is arguably the world's most China-dependent economy. More than 40% of its exports go to the mainland. The island country is also one of the largest foreign investors in China while millions of Taiwanese work, study and invest in mainland China. The economic fabric of Taiwan and mainland China are closely interwoven.
The new government does not like this and worries about the over-reliance on China. Dr Tsai wants to strengthen 'the vitality and autonomy' of Taiwan's economy and 'bid farewell to our past over-reliance on a single market.'
Rong-I Wu, chairman of Taiwan Brain Trust and a former vice–premier in the Chen Shuibian government (in power from 2000–2008), says one of the key reasons behind Taiwan's recent economic struggles is the slowdown in China.
'Over-reliance on a single market is very dangerous. We want to strengthen our relations with other developed economies and we want to diversify our risk,' he said, 'Beijing's industrial policy is also aimed at substituting Taiwanese imports with domestically produced goods.'
So, how does the new government aim to reduce its exposure to China? The first priority is to join regional trade agreements such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). Taipei will also promote a 'New Southbound Policy' that encourages Taiwanese businesses to expand their presence in Southeast Asia and India.
It is not clear whether Taiwan can easily join the TPP or RCEP. Chen-Sheng Ho, director of international affairs at Taiwan Institute Economic Research, says the 'China factor' looms large in Taiwan's ability to participate in global or regional economic trade regimes. Given the uncertain state of the cross-Straits relationship, we don't know if China will seek to frustrate Dr Tsai's ambition.
One should not, however, underestimate China's willingness to play hardball when it comes to Taiwan related issues. Past experience suggest Taiwan will face significant challenges in joining these regional trade agreements without China's implicit acquiescence. Dr Tsai also faces some resistance at home from the agricultural lobby, already unhappy with the new government's intention to relax import restrictions on American hogs.
Taiwan's pivot to Southeast Asia is also likely to result in competition with China's ambitious One Belt and One Road strategy. Senior Chinese officials are busy touring the region offering large cash sums to win over Southeast Asian countries, and China is already ASEAN's largest trading partner.
On the innovation front, Taiwan has been and still is an innovative economy with a large and vibrant small and medium enterprise sector. During my trip to attend President Tsai's inauguration ceremony, I also went to see two such firms: Singtex, a fabric firm that makes cloth from used coffee beans and recycled plastic bottles, and Gogoro, an electric scooter company that makes stylish and environmentally friendly scooters.
However, even when a good base exists, boosting innovation is much easier said than done. Rong-I Wu, a senior advisor close to the new government admits as much. He says the new government will allocate more money to research and development, education and training, and he believes it will make a difference.
The new government's decision to reduce its dependency on mainland China is sound. Past experience indicates Beijing has no qualms about using economic leverage to exert its influence. However, it is not clear whether it will be possible to reduce Taiwan's dependency on mainland China anytime soon. Despite China's sluggish growth, it is still the most important and fastest growing market for many companies, including those from the US and Japan.
It looks like the road to economic autonomy will be a bumpy one for Dr Tsai's new government.
Photo: Ashley Pon/Getty Images