U.S.-China symposium stresses relationships, trade

Feb 24, 2012

Delegates from China met with U.S. agricultural representatives in Iowa to discuss trade agreements and agricultural cooperation at a firstever symposium. Chinese officials toured farms and signed a five-year agreement to direct conversations on agricultural topics.

The U.S.-China Agricultural Symposium took place on Thursday, Feb. 16 in Des Moines, IA. The symposium was the first of its kind and saw Chinese Vice-President Xi Jinping and Chinese Agricultural Minister Han Changfu meeting with U.S.

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and others to discuss issues of food safety, sustainable agriculture, and how to feed the world’s ever-growing population.

The primary event of interest at the symposium was the signing of a five-year accord which would direct U.S.-China discussions on agricultural trade. The agreement sets goals and responsibilities between the two countries. Trade issues concerning agricultural products and research cooperation were also addressed.

“How the U.S. and China cooperate on agricultural issues will be very important for world markets,” said Scott Sindelar, the U.S. counselor for agricultural affairs in Beijing, in an interview with Bloomberg writer Jeff Wilson.

In 2011, the combined China-Hong Kong market eclipsed Canada as the U.S.’ largest market for agricultural exports by value. Total agricultural exports to China and Hong Kong in 2011 were valued at $23 billion, according to USDA data. Of that, beef and pork (meat and variety meat) represented $1.15 billion in export value. Statistics from the U.S. Meat Export Federation show a trend of upward growth in this market for U.S. beef and pork.

Despite the growing consumption of U.S. ag products in China, there have and continue to be some barriers to ag trade. China and Taiwan’s zero-tolerance ban on meat containing traces of the leanness-enhancing growth supplement ractopamine has been a particularly prickly issue.

There have been recent talks about China dropping the ban on the supplement in the interest of easing trade with the U.S., but pressures in Taiwan and inside the Chinese legislature have made these talks mostly non-committal. The December 2011 ban of the production and sale of ractopamine in China also hedges against optimism that the ban on residues in meat will be lifted anytime soon.

Not everyone on this side of the Pacific is pleased about the deepening of trade relations with China, either. Notably, presidential-candidate Mitt Romney has had harsh words which corresponded with Vice-President Xi’s visit.

In what some have called a campaign strategy to differentiate himself with current top rival Rick Santorum, Romney has called the Obama administration “weak on China” and accused the president of “almost begging” China to buy more American debt. He has been quoted as saying if he becomes president, taking on China’s protectionist trade stance and what he sees as its currency manipulation will be day-one priorities.

Despite naysayers, the future of agricultural trade with China has the potential to be massive and represent a huge market for American goods. China, its affiliate nations and the U.S. are all current members of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC). The newlyformed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) seeks to deepen existing trade relationships and has its eye on expansion into current APEC countries.

TPP proponents claim that expansion of TPP to other APEC countries such as China could drastically ease trade barriers and thereby open up billions in potential export opportunities. So far, China and Taiwan have voiced interest in becoming members of TPP. Negotiations have stalled on matters of U.S. beef imports and what has been called China’s and Taiwan’s non-sciencebased use of sanitation standards as barriers to trade.

Though the U.S.-China Agricultural Symposium was the stage for important trade-relevant interaction between the two countries, it was also an opportunity for social diplomacy and cultural exchange.

Before the symposium, the Chinese officials were welcomed at a dinner at Vice President Joe Biden’s home. Vilsack called the reception “no better place to showcase the strengths of American agriculture and American values.”

Vilsack opened the symposium with words of honor and friendship, and spoke on the agricultural power of the U.S and China. There was a clear emphasis on the mutually-beneficial future the two countries can expect with increased agricultural trade agreements. A full transcript of Vilsack’s opening statements can be found on USDA’s website, keywords “Vilsack China.”

Xi, who is expected to become China’s president next year, toured several Iowa farms during his trip. He insisted on touring Iowa’s corn- and soybean-producing areas which he visited over 30 years ago to study America’s crop production systems. Having worked on a Chinese farm in his youth, Xi says agriculture has a special place in his heart as well as being an essential industry.

Among the more photogenic elements of his Iowa farm tour, Xi rode in the large John Deere of fifthgeneration farmer Rick Kimberley. The vice president purportedly found the vehicle’s expansive cab quite impressive. Xi also met with Kimberley’s wife and children at the farm house.

The U.S. stop was just one point on Xi’s global agricultural tour. Other stops so far have included Ireland, where Xi was presented with a newborn dairy heifer calf named in his honor, and Turkey. — Kerry Halladay, WLJ Editor