China lifts 18-year-old ban on Japanese beef imports as Beijing seeks to warm trade ties with Tokyo

Orange Wang

China has lifted an 18-year-long ban on beef imported from Japan in a fresh sign that Beijing is trying to warm its relationship with Tokyo, as well as feed a growing appetite for meat.

The import ban on beef from Japanese cows under 30 months old has been immediately removed, according to a notice published by the General Administration of Customs on Thursday, paving the way for one of the most popular Japanese agricultural products to return to the dining table of the world’s largest meat consumer after nearly two decades.

The decision, which also includes lifting restrictions on Japanese pork and mutton, came before this week’s visit to China by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, his second trip to Beijing since bilateral ties between Asia’s two biggest economies began thawing last year.

Resumption of beef imports from Japan will serve as a fresh goodwill sign between China and Japan as Beijing is trying to mitigate risks of decoupling from the United States.

China’s levels of beef imports have been rising strongly as Chinese consumer’s appetite for high-quality meat grows with their income levels. In the first 10 months of 2019, China imported 1.28 million tonnes of beef, a rise of 54.5 per cent from the same period last year, according to China’s Ministry of Agriculture, with the majority coming from Australia, Brazil and Argentina.

On Monday, China said that it will reduce tariffs on more than 850 goods including frozen pork, from the start of 2020, while also confirming its pork imports in November surged more than 150 per cent from a year ago to 229,707 tonnes, the highest since at least 2016, amid the crises caused by the outbreak of African swine fever.

China placed the import ban on Japanese beef in 2001 after an outbreak of BSE, also known as mad cow disease, but Chinese consumers’ appetite for the world famous wagyu beef resulted in rampant smuggling, and in 2015, Shanghai police arrested a gang of 30 for smuggling Japanese beef into China.

A Chinese manager of a beef trading firm based in Japan, who only gave his family Zhong, said that smuggling of Japanese beef into China was rampant due to the strong demand, and that the illegal business is “an open secret”.

There’s supply as long as there’s demand. Chinese consumers want Japanese beef with or without the ban

Zhong, beef trader

“There’s supply as long as there’s demand. Chinese consumers want Japanese beef with or without the ban,” Zhong said.

The Japanese side has repeatedly requested for China to lift the ban and the two countries finally agreed to an animal health and quarantine deal a month ago during a visit by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi to Japan.

The Japanese government said earlier this month that it hopes to double the country’s output of wagyu beef, known for its tenderness and marbled fat, to 300,000 tonnes by the financial year of 2035 to meet rising overseas demand.

The decision to lift the import ban coincided with a three-way trade minister meeting in Beijing, with China, Japan and South Korea agreeing to continue to push for a trilateral free-trade zone as well as the final completion of a regional trade pact.

China lifted its ban on US beef imports in 2017 after 14 years, however, it failed to make significant inroads into the Chinese market after Beijing’s tariffs made it less competitive compared to products from other countries.

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